Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Salt Lake City Council Unanimously Passes Two Gay Nondiscrimination Ordinances - With The Help Of The LDS Church

This is a tale of two cities with similar political demographics, confronting the same issue - but with radically different outcomes.

Anchorage, Alaska; a bluish city embedded in a reddish state. Proposed gay nondiscrimination ordinance (AO 2009-64 S-2) triggers months of intense debate and filibuster. One of the leading religious organizations takes a principled and public stand against it; marshals and deploys their "redshirts" to display its strength. Result: Assembly passage but mayoral veto. Failure.

Salt Lake City, Utah; a deep-blue city embedded in a deep-red state. Proposed gay nondiscrimination ordinances trigger a relatively quiet dialog between the city's principal religious organization and five different gay lobbyists. At the initial public hearing, the religious organization testifies in favor of it. Result: Unanimous city council passage, and no mayoral veto. Success.

The difference? On November 10th, 2009, when the Salt Lake City Council held its first public hearing on the ordinances, an official spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints showed up - and testified in favor of the ordinance. Michael Otterson, managing director of the LDS Church's public affairs office, said "The church supports this ordinance because it is fair and reasonable and does not do violence to the institution of marriage". Otterson added that the statement of support is consistent with the church's prior position on such matters, as well as its stance on marriage. Both are found in the church's August 2008 statement entitled "The Divine Institution of Marriage". The full text of his testimony is available HERE. Shortly after Otterson made the statement, the city council passed the ordinances unaminously. Afterwards, the LDS Church issued the following news release:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has declared its support of nondiscrimination regulations that would extend protection in matters of housing and employment in Salt Lake City to those with same-sex attraction.

The Church said the Salt Lake City Council’s new nondiscrimination ordinance “is fair and reasonable” and balances fair housing and employment rights with the religious rights of the community.

The remarks, representing the position of the Church’s leadership, were read by Michael Otterson, managing director of Church Public Affairs, as part of a public comment period discussing the ordinances at a Salt Lake City Council meeting tonight. (Read full remarks).

Otterson told city council members: “The issue before you tonight is the right of people to have a roof over their heads and the right to work without being discriminated against. But, importantly, the ordinances also attempts to balance vital issues of religious freedom. In essence, the Church agrees with the approach which Mayor Becker is taking on this matter.”

The Church said that while protections in housing and employment were fair and reasonable, the Church also remains “unequivocally committed to defending the bedrock foundation of marriage between a man and a woman.” Otterson also pointed out that this position was “entirely consistent with the Church’s prior position on these matters.”

Otterson added, “I represent a church that believes in human dignity, in treating others with respect even when we disagree — in fact, especially when we disagree.”

KSL Channel 5 news video embedded below:

Video Courtesy of

The proposed ordinances, similar in character and content to Anchorage's failed ordinance, are buried within this 152-page package. The proposed Salt Lake City Code Chapter 10.04, banning employment discrimination, is on pp 6-22, while the proposed Chapter 10.05, banning housing discrimination, is on pp 22-37. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, here's what the proposed ordinances would do:

-- Forbid housing and employment discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation or gender identity in Salt Lake City.
-- Exempt religious organizations, businesses with fewer than 15 employees and some small landlords. (The exemptions mirror those in state and federal laws.)
-- "Not create any special rights or privileges," the ordinances state, because "every person has a sexual orientation and a gender identity."
-- Create a complaint and investigation process. The complaint could be resolved through mediation or a fine of up to $1,000.
-- Not create a private right of action to sue in court over alleged discrimination.
-- Require annual reports by the city's Human Rights Commission on the effectiveness of the statutes.

This is the first time the LDS Church has officially weighed in on a local ordinance. This is because the church headquarters are located within the city limits, so the Church was exercising its rights as a corporate citizen, or stakeholder, within the city. It is unlikely the Church would get involved in any local fights elsewhere. This may explain why the LDS Church did not get officially involved in Anchorage's fight over gay nondiscrimination.

A blizzard of public comments posted to KSL Channel 5 news stories HERE and HERE, as well as to this Deseret News story and this Salt Lake Tribune story, provide a good cross-section of public reaction. A few conservatives are criticizing the LDS Church for "caving in to political correctness", but I tend to disagree, since the Church reiterated its bedrock opposition to gay marriage. The ordinances do present an increased possibility that gays fired from a job or evicted from an apartment might falsely claim "discrimination" in order to get revenge, though.

One possible remaining roadblock might be the Utah State Legislature. Some in the mostly-LDS Republican majority, like Senator Chris Buttars (R-West Jordan), have declared their interest in passing statewide legislation to block Salt Lake's ordinances. During the 2009 session, the legislature rejected a series of Common Ground Initiatives designed to implement many of the provisions of Salt Lake's ordinances statewide. But official LDS support for Salt Lake's ordinances may soften that opposition. This will depend upon whether the gay rights lobby shows gratitude and shuts up, or if they continue to demand more concessions. If Utah gays demand even more concessions, it will not only exacerbate negative biases and stereotypes about gays, but will harden opposition among the Republican majority in the legislature.

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