Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Utah State Senator Chris Buttars Proposes To Quash Salt Lake City's Incipient Gay Rights Ordinance In The State Legislature

Utah State Senator Chris Buttars (R-West Jordan) has weighed Salt Lake City's prospective legislation extending nondiscrimination protection to gays and transgenders in the balance, and has found it wanting. So much so that he says if it passes, he might initiate action to quash it once the state legislature begins its 2010 session. Media stories from the Deseret News, the Salt Lake Tribune, and KSL Channel 5. Salt Lake Crawlmeister Glen Warchol has taken his usual snarky shot at Buttars.

It should be noted that the draft ordinance crafted by Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker has not been made public yet, although city council members reportedly each have a copy of it. Elements of the proposed ordinance are published HERE. For example, the nondiscrimination edict could result in $1,000 fines for employers or landlords after both a complaint and an investigation. Corporations would be slapped with $5,000 penalties. Becker's goal is to get a hearing from the city council by mid-September. This represents the culmination of efforts begin last winter, when Becker, along with then-City Council Chair Jill Remington Love, requested the Salt Lake City Human Rights Commission facilitate a public process on the subject of human rights. The Commission responded by hosting a Dialogue on Discrimination series. From this, the Commission unveiled its 2009 Discrimination Report, in which they touted a nondiscrimination ordinance as one of its four recommendations. You can view a copy of this report HERE. The proposed ordinance has already been criticized editorially as a "crazy quilt agenda" by the Provo Daily Herald.

But Senator Buttars isn't waiting. Buttars objects to the concept of "group rights" and considers it un-American. "I don't think anybody should be discriminated against... . But in America, we have never given special privilege or protection to little groups. We give them to the entire nation." In addition, Buttars doesn't believe the gay community should fall under the same protective umbrella as race, age and religion, which affect everybody. He also doesn't see any evidence that it needs to be done, thus questioning the validity of the 2009 Discrimination Report.

"I have never seen any facts to back it up," Buttars said. "They want to say they're being hurt more than someone else, I guess. If anybody had a right to special protection it would be Mormons; they've been persecuted but not as bad as the American Indian. But they're not pounding on the newspaper's door. Or the Jewish people; the Jewish people have lots of people hate them. I love them. But you know that's true."

Proponents of the gay ordinance profess to be blind-sided by Buttars' critique. "We were a little bit blindsided," said Council Chairman Carlton Christensen. "It's early for us. We've been furnished with a draft copy, but we've never had a discussion about the ordinance". Christensen said he expects the ordinance to be before the council by year's end.

While city attorney Ed Rutan said the city would be within its rights to create fair housing rights for a group not currently protected under state law, Christensen knows the Legislature could hold the trump card. "We want to help them understand what it is and what it isn't," Christensen said. "We'll try to be proactive before the legislative session. If we try to wait, it's going to be problematic and pretty political."

It will be more than "problematic". Senator Buttars' attitude towards special rights for gays is representative of majority legislative opinion, and encompasses the State House as well. House Speaker Dave Clark (R-Santa Clara) said, "Depending on how they carve out a protected class, it creates a concern that is something we would want to look at." Rep. Clark also notes there was not a will this year on Capitol Hill to pass the Common Ground Initiative bills, which, among other changes, would have made it illegal statewide to fire an employee or evict a tenant for being gay or transgender. "I don't anticipate there's any more of an appetite to pass it now," concluded Clark. Most of the Common Ground bills were actually shut down in committee and didn't make it to a full chamber vote.

Likewise, new Governor Gary Herbert, more conservative than Jon Huntsman Jr., is also cautious about laws that grant special status by expanding protected classes beyond those already in place in state and federal laws. At the same time, Herbert is said to be a strong supporter of local government and backs Salt Lake City's right to make policy for its jurisdiction.

Some solid justification against special protection for gays is posted on Dr. Jerry Prevo's SOSAnchorage website. Pastor Prevo led a successful effort to stop a similar ordinance from being enacted in Anchorage, Alaska. The new mayor, Dan Sullivan, vetoed the ordinance after it was passed 7-4 by the Assembly, and the Assembly needs eight votes to override the veto. Anchorage's ordinance was considerably milder than Becker's proposed ordinance, and granted liberal religious exemptions as well as exemptions for small businesses with fewer than five employees.

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