Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Sandy, penned a bill that critics call reckless and dangerous. The “Religious Liberty Recognition and Protection Act,” in short, allows anyone in the state to refuse services that go against a person’s religious beliefs. Christensen has close ties with the Utah Eagle Forum and Sutherland Institute — two of the most ultra-conservative groups in the state. He also authored Utah’s Amendment 3 which restricted marriage to only male-female couples. That amendment was struck down by U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby in December, 2013.
The broad-sweeping bill begins by amending the Utah Antidiscrimination Act, adding:
“All individuals are entitled to fair access to employment opportunities in the state. Such opportunities are vital to the health and well being of all people. The laws of the state shall be fairly applied in balanced recognition and protection of all affected interests and as provided in Title 63G, Chapter 19, Religious Liberty Recognition and Protection Act, including recognized principles of freedom of contract and employment-at-will considerations, when applicable.”
It also addresses housing:
“All individuals are entitled to fair access to housing under this chapter. All protections and requirements shall be reasonably and fairly applied with the greatest sensitivity and balanced recognition of the liberties and rights of all individuals under the Utah Constitution, the United States Constitution, and Title 63G, Chapter 19, Religious Liberty Recognition and Protection Act.”
The bill does not, however, add the terms “sexual orientation” or “gender identity,” as do other bills before the legislature.
The bill then goes on to create a new chapter in the Utah Code that deals specifically with religious liberty.
“The rights and protections of religious liberty afforded by this chapter are in furtherance of those provided under the constitutions of this state and the United States. As provided in the constitution of this state, perfect toleration of religious sentiment is guaranteed and rights of conscience shall never be infringed, and all citizens of this state, both male and female, shall enjoy equally all civil, political, and religious rights and privileges. There is a substantial public and government interest in protecting order and morality.”
It goes on to say that no law, regulation or state action may “substantially burden a person’s religious liberty” unless the action is strictly necessary to protect the public health and safety. It states that “the exercise of religious liberty is … a recognized exemption to otherwise generally applicable laws and a valid defense to claims of discrimination by others” and basis for recovery of attorney fees and costs for defense of their religious beliefs.
Several weeks ago, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints called for the passage of nondiscrimination laws that would protect gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trans* people from discrimination in housing and employment. They also called on legislatures to pass religious protection laws.
Utah GOP leaders have publicly stated that a religious protections bill would not go through the legislative session without the passage of a nondiscrimination bill that included LGBT protections.
“It would polarize those two issues if we try to move one without the other,” said Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe.
Utah Sen. James Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, says Christensen’s bill is “seriously flawed.”
“Serious people are now trying to find the language for a bill that will protect sacred First Amendment protections and make our state a national role model that does not tolerate discrimination in housing and employment. I remain optimistic that we will find a way,” Dabakis said in a statement.
Equality Utah, which was borne out of the fight against Christensen’s Amendment 3, called the bill extreme.
“LaVar Christensen has crafted extreme legislation that would use religion as a valid defense to any claim of discrimination by others. His proposed legislation would unravel our nation’s proud civil rights legacy — allowing any person to use faith as a protection from any claim of discrimination against gays, African-Americans, Jews, women, or any person that he believes is a sinner,” said EU executive director Troy Williams. “His bill would allow people to pick and choose what laws they want to follow. It is a gross distortion of both religion and freedom. We will send this legislation right back to the 1950s where it belongs.”
The Human Rights Campaign says that the bill is so broad and sweeping that “it threatens not just the LGBT community, but women, members of minority faiths and other minority classes.”
“This bill is reckless, it’s dangerous, and if passed it puts the state’s non-discrimination laws at risk of being undermined,” said Marty Rouse, HRC national field director. “After claiming that it is increasingly open to treating LGBT people equally, the LDS Church should disavow any connection to this racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-LGBT bill. Fair-minded Utahns should be outraged that something so extreme and blatantly harmful to countless people could be introduced in this great state.”
HRC leaders believe that Christensen’s bill is part of a coordinated effort to introduce such legislation all across the nation.
“Under many proposed bills, an evangelical police officer could feel empowered to refuse to patrol a Jewish street festival; a city clerk could shirk the law and refuse a marriage license to an interracial couple, a divorcee seeking to remarry, or a lesbian couple; an EMT could claim the law is on his side after refusing service to a dying transgender person in the street; and the enforcement of other key sections of civil rights law could be dramatically undermined,” an HRC statement read.
HRC released a report on these bills, titled “Chipping Away at Equality.”