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Utah Senate passes ‘religious freedom’ bill after compromise with LGBTQ+ advocates

Utah could be next state to codify Religious Freedom Restoration Act — but with LGBTQ+ legal protections

By Katie McKellar - Utah News Dispatch | Feb 14, 2024

Spenser Heaps, Utah News Dispatch

Senators work in the Senate Chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024.

A bill to make Utah the next state to adopt its own version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has won approval from the Senate — after the bill was altered to include language making clear it’s not meant to conflict with previously legalized discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people.

The Utah Senate voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a new version of SB150 after its sponsor, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, negotiated with LGBTQ+ advocates and others to make clear it shouldn’t jeopardize laws the Utah Legislature has passed over the years to protect LGBTQ+ and other civil rights.

The bill now goes to the House for consideration.

The latest version of the bill contains “carefully negotiated” language meant to “complement rather than disrupt” Utah’s existing legal protections for LGBTQ+ Utahns, Weiler said on the Senate floor.

In 2015, the Utah Legislature with the passage of SB296 banned sexual orientation and gender identity-based discrimination in housing and hiring while also providing safeguards for religious freedom, known as the “Utah Compromise” because The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and LGBTQ+ advocates all backed the bill.

Most recently, Utah lawmakers also struck a compromise with LGBTQ+ advocates last year when agreeing to enshrine in state law Utah’s 2020 administrative ban on conversion therapy while also clarifying language that created ambiguity and concerns for Utah therapists.

The bill would still codify in state law current federal religious freedom protections if Congress were to ever repeal the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which allows Utahns to challenge government regulations they believe interfere with their “sincerely held” religious beliefs.

But the bill also now includes intent language saying it shouldn’t be interpreted in a way that could disrupt the “balance” Utah has struck with previous laws on “religious freedom with other important civil rights.”

The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was approved in 1993 to allow federal regulations that clash with religious beliefs to be challenged. Since then, 35 other states have passed similar protections in state law.

Today RFRA remains in place, but advocacy groups including the Human Rights Campaign — the largest LGBTQ+ political lobbying organization in the U.S. — say even though it was designed to protect religious freedom, some have “distorted RFRA into a blank check to discriminate or to impose their religious beliefs on others.”

Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and Equality Utah, the state’s largest LGBTQ+ advocacy group, expressed concerns about earlier versions of Weiler’s bill, worried that it could be used to override discrimination protections in housing and employment for LGBTQ+ Utahns, as well as the ban on conversion therapy.

But on Tuesday Equality Utah issued a statement thanking Weiler for listening and responding to their concerns and “incorporating language in the bill to make clear that the rights conferred in these previously enacted bills are preserved and protected.”

Shortly before the vote to pass the bill and advance it to the Senate, Weiler said the latest iteration of the bill would be “the best” state version of RFRA.

“A lot of work has gone into this,” he said. “A lot of fingerprints are on this bill.”

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.


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