Even in one of the reddest states in the Union, progressive legislation is resonating with Utah’s citizens and lawmakers. In the past two years, the super-majority Republican legislature has enacted laws that might be more likely found in our “bluer” neighbor, Colorado. Laws such as: drug enforcement changes that are more compassionate than hard-lined, stricter seatbelt laws, tax increases to fund transportation, and gay-rights protections. It is the latter issue that might be of most surprise in the deep red and deeply religious state, and an accomplishment honored by the American Unity Fund.
The American Unity Fund is a group dedicated to advancing the cause of freedom for LGBT Americans by making the conservative case that freedom truly means freedom for everyone. In May, Equality Utah and various Utah lawmakers received an award from the organization “In honor of bipartisan leadership in the campaign for freedom from discrimination for LGBT Utahns.” Brandi Balken, Sen. Jim Dabakis, Sen. Curt Branble, and Equality Utah were recognized for their work on Senate Bill 296: Antidiscrimination and Religious Freedoms Amendments. SB 296 was a landmark piece of legislation baring discrimination in employment and housing based on a persons gender identity or sexual orientation. It also allows for the expression of religious beliefs and commitments within the workplace as long as they are “reasonable” and not disruptive or harassing. The “Utah Compromise” received the baking of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, LGBTQ groups such as Equality Utah and the Utah Pride Center, and 85% of the legislature, passing in March of 2015.
Passing comprehensive antidiscrimination legislation protecting the LGBT community while balancing religious liberties has been an equilibrium other Republican-controlled states have struggled to find. Indiana, for example, passed a “religious liberties” bill that was seen as too broad and protected discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs. Within weeks of it being passed, Indiana’s governor had to sign a revised version of the bill because of the backlash to the law. Utah’s “compromise” is recognized by the American Liberty Fund as being the gold standard in addressing the concerns of both sides and finding a solution that is adequate and protects all.
Can more progressive legislation like the “Utah Compromise” pass moving forward? Is Utah no longer a deep red state, but becoming a little more pink? Arguably, yes.
In the past legislative session, issues such as medical cannabis and stricter hate-crime laws were debated and nearly passed one or both chambers. As recently as five years ago, the thought of these issues coming to the House or Senate floor would have been unimaginable or considered political suicide. As Utah’s population becomes more diverse and younger, though, ideological divides, at least on social issues, seem to be changing. In the upcoming legislative session, gun control legislation restricting someone with a violent crime conviction from obtaining a gun will be introduced, and looks like it will pass. A “death with dignity” bill to expand end of life options for those individuals with terminal illness will be reintroduced and looks to be gaining support.
The accomplishments of the LGBTQ community legislatively with the passage of SB 296 has opened the door for more compassionate, progressive legislation. The work of groups like Equality Utah and the Pride Center has changed minds and opened eyes to humanizing issues, not keeping them theoretical. Following this model, the chance for progress and changes to the laws with a focus on compassion for Utah’s citizens seems more real than ever.
Jane and Tami Marquardt are proud progressives and supporters of Equality Utah. Being a part of the signing of SB 296 has been a highlight in their personal and professional careers and they look forward to working toward a more equitable society for women and LGBTQ individuals through their charitable givings.