SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A bill to create a statewide law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual identity or orientation is dead, the lawmaker behind the measure said Monday.
Sen. Stephen Urquhart, of St. George, said he was unable to round up enough votes in the Utah Senate to support the measure before a Monday deadline to vote on it.
The legislation has been introduced in the Legislature for five years in a row, but this year's proposal went further than any before. Thursday marked the first time the measure had passed out of a legislative committee with approval.
"It's a breakthrough piece of legislation," said Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, a co-sponsor of the legislation who in 2011 became the first openly gay person to lead a state party in Utah.
"We have had a huge leap this year toward evolving," Dabakis said Monday afternoon.
In 2009, Salt Lake City became the first municipality in Utah to pass an ordinance making it illegal to fire or evict someone for being gay or transgender, and 15 other cities and counties have followed suit. But for the past five years, statewide efforts, generally led by Democrats, have failed in the state's Republican-controlled Legislature.
Despite this year's effort dying in the final days of the session, Equality Utah Executive Director Brandie Balken said it was still a victory for their cause.
"We have not been pushed back," she said. "We will continue to move forward."
The proposal would not have applied to religious organizations, which are already exempt from the state's anti-discrimination laws.
The bill also extended that exemption to any organization advocating a viewpoint that would be affected by employing someone falling into a protected category.
Urquhart said opposition from fellow Republicans in the Senate mirrored arguments from opponents that protecting people because of their sexual orientation violates the freedom of religious people who don't support the lifestyle.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to which the majority of Utah legislators and residents belong, did not support the legislation, but it did not oppose it either. Dabakis said he appreciated that.
Dabakis and Urquhart said they hope to work over the next year to get the church to support the legislation, as they did in 2009 when Salt Lake City adopted a similar anti-discrimination ordinance.
Urquhart, a Republican from a conservative district in southern Utah, said he expects the opinions of his colleagues will shift as his has over the past few years, moving from opposing the legislation to advocating for it.
"I feel a little late to the party, but I'm sure glad I'm here," Urquhart said.
He plans to bring the legislation back next year and keep bringing it back until it passes, he said.