While neither bill is yet officially registered with the Utah Legislature, both a statewide nondiscrimination bill and a bill legalizing second-parent adoption will be considered in this year’s session.
Each year comes with surprises, both good and bad, but Equality Utah Executive Director Brandie Balken said she is cautiously optimistic about the legislative session, which runs Jan. 28-March 14.
“I always feel a great sense of anticipation for the legislative session, and this year I also feel cautiously optimistic,” she said.
This year’s anti-bias bill will mirror similar regional measures passed in Utah municipalities, she said. Equality Utah and Democratic sponsors are working with potential Republican allies in the legislature to take a bipartisan approach. No co-sponsors have yet been announced, however, and the final language of the bill is unavailable.
The drive to protect employees and tenants from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity started in 2008 by openly lesbian Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City. The bills were part of the Common Ground Initiative, sponsored by Equality Utah, focusing on legislation that would be seen as “fair and just” by most Utahns, regardless of political party. At the height of tension between the queer community and the LDS Church due to an effort to ban same-sex marriage in California through Proposition 8, Equality Utah and others fought to find common ground with the Mormon Church and Republican legislators.
The bills never made it to the floor, although in 2008 and 2009 the bills were considered in a committee hearing.
After Salt Lake City passed similar ordinances in December 2009, with the blessing of the Mormon church, the momentum to have statewide protections was palpable. However, in a controversial move, Johnson chose to table the bills as part of a compromise with Republican leaders. As part of the agreement, all queer-related bills — both positive and negative — were put on hold in exchange for allowing Salt Lake City and other municipalities to keep their own measures.
Nearly two dozen Utah cities and counties have since enacted nondiscrimination ordinances, which typically forbid landlords with four or more units and employers with 15 or more employees from eviction, termination or refusal to hire based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Religious organizations, such as the Mormon Church, are exempt.
Johnson did not seek another term after the 2010 session and moved to lead Equality South Carolina. Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, who replaced openly gay Sen. Scott McCoy in late 2009, took up the bill and tried to take it to the floor in 2011. Despite repeated efforts, McAdams, a straight, married member of the Mormon Church could not gain any traction and the bill was not debated.
“I think there is room in our Utah community to offer protections at work and at home for members of the gay community that doesn’t compromise the values of other members of the Utah community,” McAdams said. “I think we can have protections and we can value religious liberty at the same time.”
Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck will sponsor a second-parent adoption bill which would allow unmarried partners to jointly adopt children. While Utah law does not single out gay couples, the ban on unmarried partners from adopting effectively bars gay couples from jointly adopting.
While acknowledging the long-shot chance the bill will clear the legislature, Chavez-Houck said it is still important to start a discussion.
“I don’t know at this point what the chances are of it being considered — probably still slim. However, we have a number of new legislators who have joined our ranks and I hope to use this as an opportunity to inform and introduce them to the challenges faced by many families in our community due to the current law,” she said.
Utah gay couples have been unable to legally adopt children since 2000 and Chavez-Houck has introduced legislation each year since 2008 to change the law.
“I hear the horrific stories of where a child knows two individuals and the biological mom or dad dies and this other partner, who this child knows, has no legal right to that child,” Chavez-Houck said. “I can’t imagine being in that situation, having lost one parent and the other parent isn’t your parent. I think that’s a horrible thing to do to a family.”
While the bill has never made it out of committee, it is an important issue for many gay family members and those who would like to adopt in the future.
Restoration of Terminated Parental Rights and Rights of Parents and Children Amendments
In a rehash of previous bills that were tabled or never made it to committee, Rep. LaVarr Christensen, R-Sandy, is sponsoring two bills about parental rights. The language of the bills is not released and he did not return repeated emails to learn more about the bills.
Christensen was the author of Utah’s Amendment 3, which banned the state from recognizing same-sex marriage performed elsewhere and defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. He’s since made moves to attack gay couples’ ability to enter legal contracts and he is backed by the Utah Eagle Forum.
Parental Responsibility for Sex Education Training
After last year’s failed attempt to overhaul Utah’s sex-education policies, Republican lawmakers aren’t finished. Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, is proposing a measure that would offer classes and online resources to parents for teaching about sex in the home. The bill would not replace existing sex-education policies and procedures.