- Associated Press - Thursday, February 12, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Conservatives and LGBT activists in Utah are staking out their visions for a statewide anti-discrimination law that also protects religious rights, something called for by the Mormon church.

Lawmakers are working behind closed doors to craft a bill that could receive support from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but in the meantime, advocates on both sides of the issue are rolling out their ideas.

Draper Republican Rep. LaVar Christensen unveiled a bill Wednesday afternoon that declares broadly that “all individuals are entitled to fair access” to housing and employment while spelling out protections for religious liberty.

The bill, titled “Religious Liberty Recognition and Protection Act,” makes no mention of sexual orientation. It states that a person’s exercise of religious liberty is “a valid defense to claims of discrimination by others.”

Christensen, who sponsored Utah’s now-overturned ban on same-sex marriage in 2004, said in a statement Thursday that he was working to make sure free exercise of religious liberty is protected and “fairly applied and balanced for the benefit of all.”

Earlier Thursday, a group of religious leaders and others advocating for LGBT protections held a press conference where they criticized the proposal as “so extreme that it would unravel our nations’ proud civil rights legacy.”

Troy Williams, the executive director of Equality Utah, said the bill would allow any discrimination against a number of groups, including minorities, women and other religious groups.

Rev. Curtis Price from the First Baptist Church of Salt Lake City said some in Utah are trying to shift the debate from protecting LGBT people to protecting people of faith from being discriminated against for their views.

“I’m not sure why or how this has happened but it has begun to distract from the real issue,” Price said. “Religious freedom is alive and well in the United States, and the protections of those freedoms are codified in the Bill of Rights.”

Price and representatives from about 20 religious organizations sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to support an LGBT anti-discrimination bill that Utah’s Republican-controlled Legislature has declined to consider for years.

No officials from the LDS Church participated in the event or signed the letter.

LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said Thursday that the church is seeking balanced dialogue on the issue and while they’re involved in conversations on the subject, they have not taken a position on any particular legislation now being considered in the Utah Legislature.

The anti-discrimination bill endorsed by Equality Utah and the faith leaders Thursday includes religious exemptions, but legislative leaders are holding the measure as lawmakers meet to work out some additional compromise.

Republican leaders thus far have declined to specify what further exemptions would need to be added to gain broad support. Generally, they’ve said they won’t support any non-discrimination bill that doesn’t include strong protections for religious rights.

St. George Republican Sen. Steve Urquhart, who has sponsored the stalled LGBT bill for three years, said ideas are scattershot right now but “next week, we really need to start winnowing down what it is we’re about.”


Follow Michelle L. Price at https://twitter.com/michellelprice

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