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Mormon church backs Utah LGBT anti-discrimination bill

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers introduced a landmark anti-discrimination bill Wednesday that protects LGBT individuals while also carving out protections for the Boy Scouts of America and religious groups.

The proposal unveiled in the heavily Mormon state on Wednesday prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation when it comes to housing or employment.

“This is a historic day,” Equality Utah executive director Troy Williams said. “People from diverse backgrounds have come together to craft what no one thought was possible.”

State Sen. Stuart Adams, a Republican who led negotiations on the proposal, said at a news conference that they’ve found a way to join the issues and respect the rights of some while not infringing on the rights of others.

“If Utah can do this, my opinion, it can be done anywhere else in the nation,” Adams said.

Religious groups and organizations would be exempt from the requirement, as would Boy Scouts of America, which has a ban on gay adult Scout leaders and has close ties to the Mormon church.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is based in Utah, is the Boy Scouts’ largest sponsor. The church said it is fully behind the legislation, which follows the principles set out in the faith’s recent nationwide call for laws that balance both religious rights and LGBT protections.

“After a considerable amount of hard work, we believe that the Utah legislature has wisely struck that balance,” the church said in a statement. “While none of the parties achieved all they wanted, we do at least now have an opportunity to lessen the divisiveness in our communities without compromising on key principles.

LGBT activists have spent years pushing for a statewide non-discrimination law in Utah, but their efforts were fast-tracked this year after the Mormon church issued its call for this type of legislation.

At a news conference where a bipartisan group of Utah lawmakers and LGBT-rights activists sat next to high-ranking leaders of the Mormon church, where they exchanged handshakes, shed a few tears and touted the measure as a model for the rest of the country and history-making for Utah.

Democratic state Sen. Jim Dabakis, who was raised Mormon and is openly gay, said local Catholic and Episcopal church officials were also consulted about the proposal but they have not official endorsed it.

Sen. Steve Urquhart, a St. George Republican who co-sponsors the bill, said the Boy Scouts were not involved in negotiations on the Utah proposal and did not request the exemption. He said the organization was included because of a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision recognizing the organization’s constitutional right to exclude gay members.

The Boy Scouts now accepts allow openly gay youth.

Boy Scouts of America national spokesman Deron Smith said the organization didn’t have any comment on the legislation. Utah Boy Scouts leaders deferred comment to the national organization.

Beyond banning discrimination based on identity and sexual orientation, the proposal stipulates that employers can adopt “reasonable dress and grooming standards” and “reasonable rules and polices” for sex-specific restrooms and other facilities, as long as those standards also include accommodations for gender identity.

The bill states that its provisions may not be interpreted to “infringe on freedom of expressive association or the free exercise of religion.” It protects the right of an individual employee to express their religious or moral beliefs in “a reasonable, non-disruptive or non-harassing way,” as long as it doesn’t interfere with the company’s business.

It also prohibits employers from firing, demoting or refusing to hire a person for expressing religious or political beliefs about marriage or sexuality unless those beliefs conflict with the company’s business interest.

The Mormon campaign pushing for these types of laws is the latest example of a shift in tone on gay rights by the LDS Church, which counts 15 million members worldwide. They have moved away from harsh rhetoric and are preaching compassion and acceptance of gays and lesbians now that gay marriage is legal in Washington D.C. and 36 states including Utah.

The church insists it is making no changes in doctrine, and still believes that sex is against the law of God unless it’s within a marriage between a man and a woman.