A Look at Utah’s Nondiscrimination Ordinances

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It was 1986 when Utah’s first nondiscrimination bill was lobbied before the Salt Lake City Council, and 23 years later Salt Lake City passed Utah’s first nondiscrimination ordinances, barring landlords and employers from discriminating based on sexuality.

This move, which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints stated was “fair and reasonable and does not do violence to the institution of marriage,” mentioned that the Church did not object to hospitalization and medical care rights either, as long as religious rights were protected. Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker said that these ordinances were necessary because “…we are going to pass a law that outlaws it as we do for other forms of discrimination.” These ordinances, along with anti-bullying school policies, the city’s continued engagement with the LGBT community, and LGBT relationship recognition, have scored Salt Lake City an 87 out of 100 in the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index.

These ordinances, now found in 17 cities and counties across Utah, apply to allegations of bias relating to the firing or eviction of a person based solely on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Springdale was Southern Utah’s first town to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance, with the City Council passing the bill unanimously in April 2012. Legislators have tried enacting a statewide ban each legislative session for the past 5 years, passing out of committee for the first time last year. Senator Steve Urquhart (R – Saint George), who sponsored the bill last year, was the first Republican sponsor, and will be bringing the bill back up this year as SB 100. Urquhart’s advocacy for the issue comes primarily from his daughter’s work with a gay-straight alliance club at her Southern Utah high school, and he even cited an Old Testament verse while accepting his Lincoln Award at last year’s Allies Dinner to show his belief that there really are more allies in Utah than we realize.

But what have these nondiscrimination ordinances accomplished?

City and County Council meetings still hear citizens speaking out about facing discrimination, but although critics warned that the passing of these ordinances would overwhelm local agencies, inundating government offices with hundreds of complaints, initially an extremely small number of discrimination complaints have actually been made. Salt Lake City has had three complaints, not all of which were from people within city boundaries, and no complaints were made in 2013. Salt Lake County has had zero complaints from the unincorporated areas of the county, and zero have been made to the Neighborhood Development and Community Improvement department in Logan which deals with the ordinances.  Likewise, Grand County, Ogden, and West Valley City have not had a single discrimination complaint. In some municipal representatives have stated that though they have received one or two complaints, they have not been within their jurisdictions, so there was nothing they could do to help.  

Several municipality representatives told Utah Political Capitol that they are concerned that citizens may not know where complaints should be made and end up reporting to the police or incorrect city offices and, while researching for this report, several governmental agencies could not connect reporters to the correct department within two transfers. Because of issues like this, many across the state are concerned that complaints may then end up being dealt with by the police instead of being transferred to the correct department and ultimately not be properly reported. 

Nationwide, twenty states and the District of Columbia have laws that prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation. Thirteen of these also prevent discrimination based on gender identity, leaving 3.1 million LGBT adults in states without these basic protections. A study from the Williams Institute showed that per capita, sexual orientation discrimination complaints were received at similar rates as sex and race discrimination rates (5 per 10,000). The highest LGB rates of complaint came from seemingly liberal areas, with a rate of 8.8 per 10,000 in DC, 7.3 per 10,000 in California, and 6.4 per 10,000 in Connecticut. Gender identity ordinances were too new to study comprehensively, though preliminary reports have shown that these rates may be considerably higher.

A 2012 Utah survey showed that 43 percent of gay Utahns and 67 percent of transgender Utahns have experienced discrimination in the workplace (being either fired or denied a job because of their sexual orientation or gender identity). What is less clear is if residents know that they can file a complaint or know how to go about doing so, or if discrimination has virtually ceased when the various ordinances were passed in communities. 

Senator Steve Urquhart (Republican – St. George) has proposed SB 100, a bill that would incorporate many of the tenets of Salt Lake City’s original nondiscrimination ordinance into state law. Urquhart and supporters claim that such standardization would bring members of the gay and transgendered community up to the same level as other citizens in regards to housing and employment access while making the state more enticing to outside business. Certain groups, such as the conservative think-tanks the Sutherland Institute and Eagle Forum, are currently running ads against the statewide nondiscrimination ordinance – claiming that it will take away the freedoms of religion and association. 

Despite critic’s fears, there have been zero reports about businesses going bankrupt or landlord’s properties being devalued or depopulated because they are no longer able to evict someone simply because they are gay. Companies such as 1-800 Contacts and Ancestry.com, proud Utah businesses that credit of their success to Utah’s hard workers and welcoming atmosphere, have called again and again for a statewide nondiscrimination ordinance so that they can be competitive on the job market. 

Many are spelling doom for SB 100 during the next legislative session, and the result will be a patchwork of ordinances that provide little security to those wishing to receive equal protection when it comes to housing and employment. 

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