- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 5, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A proposed statewide anti-discrimination law appears to be dead this year as party leaders in the Utah Senate have decided to avoid bills that could impact the state’s gay marriage case, a senator said Wednesday.

Sen. Steve Urquhart, a Republican from St. George, argues his bill has nothing to do with same-sex marriage and has urged his colleagues to allow the bill to be heard.

But Urquhart said his fellow Republican senators made it clear in a closed-door meeting Tuesday that they support GOP leaders in that chamber who want to hold off on his bill and others that deal with gay rights, religious freedoms or related issues.

“I want it to be heard, but barring something that significantly changes the dynamic, this likely is the end this session,” Urquhart said Wednesday.

This is the second consecutive year that he’s fought for the proposal, which would bar discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation in housing and employment.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate have agreed this year to hold off on bills dealing with religious freedoms, same-sex marriage or any tangential issues.

Utah has been at the center of the gay marriage debate since the state’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage was overturned in December by U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby. More than 1,000 gay couples rushed to wed before the U.S. Supreme Court granted the state’s request to halt the weddings in January.

Utah has appealed Shelby’s decision to the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which will issue a decision later this year, likely after lawmakers wrap up their 2014 session.

Urquhart maintains his bill is separate from same-sex marriage and has publically lobbied his colleagues to hear the bill.

Late Friday, he held a news conference and urged supporters to leave notes on main doors of the Utah Senate calling for the bill to be heard and passed. Hundreds of notes were posted, blanketing the tall wooden doors and marble walls on each side. Senate staff cleared the notes on Monday and delivered them to Urquhart.

As of Wednesday, about 450 notes had been posted or delivered.

“I thought it was fantastic,” Urquhart said of the notes. “I love when people participate in the process and this was wonderful.”

Despite the show of support, Senate leaders are holding firm on their moratorium.

“We’re going to have a stand-down on those bills this session,” Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said Tuesday.

Niederhauser and other Senate Republican leaders have said if lawmakers wade into those issues, any public discussions or comments might influence justices on the appeals court or even the U.S. Supreme Court, should the case go that far.

Niederhauser said emotions are running high on the issue, but because the gay marriage case is still playing out in courts, any decision in that case could change the playing field for Urquhart’s bill and others involving LGBTQ issues and religious freedoms.

“A decision at the Supreme Court could change the environment for this issue to a great degree,” he said. “Should we be addressing this? It seems premature to us.”

He has said that though Urquhart’s bill is not directly tied to gay marriage, they are “sister and companion issues.”

Salt Lake City Sen. Gene Davis, the Senate Minority leader, has said he hoped lawmakers would stay away from divisive legislation, such as religious freedom bills, before the court makes a ruling. But he, too, argued that Urquhart’s bill is a separate issue, and supported its passing.

In the Republican-controlled House, Speaker Becky Lockhart said that while she thinks it’s “cool” that citizens were making their voices heard by posting notes, GOP leaders in her chamber would still like to hold off on bills that may impact the same-sex marriage case.

Lockhart, a Provo Republican, said that it makes sense to hold off while the court case plays out.

Urquhart’s bill proposal has been before the Legislature about half a dozen times, but has traditionally been sponsored by Democrats. Last year was the first year a Republican pushed for it, and the bill made it further than ever before when it was approved by a Senate committee.

It died soon after in the Legislative process, but Urquhart has vowed to run the bill every year until it passes.

Urquhart, who represents a conservative district in southern Utah, said last year he had moved from opposing the bill to supporting it over the past few years.

After the bill died last year, he said that everyone deserves a chance to earn a living and keep a roof over their head, and hoped his colleagues’ opinions would also shift in time.

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Online:

SB 100: http://1.usa.gov/1nU9BEl

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