SALT LAKE CITY -- A new bill that would safeguard religious liberties in Utah is being slammed by gay rights groups as "a license to discriminate."
Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, unveiled House Bill 322 on Wednesday night. It "establishes that perfect toleration of religious sentiment is guaranteed and that rights of conscience shall never be infringed, as provided in the Utah Constitution; requires government and private individuals that impose a law or action that substantially burdens another's religious liberty to balance certain requirements in order to lawfully enforce or recognize the law or action."
The bill has been criticized for specifically leaving out the words "sexual orientation and gender identity" from the language.
The gay rights group Equality Utah called the bill "so extreme." At a news conference on Thursday, more than a dozen religious leaders prayed for the success of another bill, Senate Bill 100, that includes sexual orientation and gender identity in housing and employment protections.
Equality Utah released a letter from the religious leaders to the Utah State Legislature, urging passage of SB100.
Read the letter here:
Rep. Christensen declined to talk to FOX 13 about his bill Thursday morning, but issued a statement later in the day, saying:
Free exercise of religious liberty has been guaranteed since the inception of our U.S. and state constitutions. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld those guarantees. This session we are working closely and very carefully to make sure that these protections are fairly applied and balanced for the benefit of all. I sincerely want to make sure that in the vital areas of housing and employment, all persons are fully respected and protected. I’ve introduced a bill, HB322, that seeks to achieve those ends and the process is underway.
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, a co-sponsor of SB 100, blasted Christensen's bill as "a license to discriminate"
"They would say someone can break the law if they have a serious religious conviction. We would see in restaurants African-Americans turned away. We would see Mormons turned away if someone had a serious religious conviction," he said of HB322. "It would certainly say to people you don’t have to hire gay people if that person had a serious religious conviction."
At a briefing Thursday afternoon with reporters, House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, didn't want to comment on Christensen's bill. He did give support to an idea reported by FOX 13 on Wednesday, that one all-encompassing bill be considered balancing LGBT nondiscrimination with religious freedom.
"How a bill becomes a law always has an exciting adventure in front of it," he said.
Governor Gary Herbert said that with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints giving its support to LGBT nondiscrimination measures -- so long as they are coupled with protections for religious beliefs -- the timing is right to advance some legislation.
The governor said he wanted to see both issues addressed, but did not indicate if he would veto a religious liberties bill that made it to his desk without an LGBT nondiscrimination bill.
"If we need to spell out 'LGBT' to make sure the gay community knows they are part of all Utahns, that doesn’t cause me any heartburn," he said.