SALT LAKE CITY -- A controversial religious liberties bill in Indiana has brought new focus to the issue in Utah, where lawmakers recently passed an historic non-discrimination bill.
“In substance, what we have done in Utah is add protections, whereas in Indiana they've given a way, sort of, to get around protections,” said John Mejia, director of Utah’s American Civil Liberties Union.
Utahns in the LGBTQ community celebrated a major victory this year with the passage of SB296. The bill prohibits discrimination in housing and employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It was met with cheers at the Capitol when it was signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert in March.
However, according to Mejia, they suffered a major loss in Indiana with the passage of a law he believes allows for discrimination- the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“These are two totally separate things,” Mejia said. “In Utah, we provided new protections for LGBT people in housing and employment. Indiana has provided now defense to discrimination.”
The act prohibits any state and local laws in Indiana that “substantially burden” a person or for-profit company from exercising their religious beliefs. While we don’t have such a law in Utah, we almost did with HB322, sponsored by Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper. It died in the Utah legislature this year, as did a dueling proposal, SB99, sponsored by Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City.
“Our great moment in Utah dealt with only two things: nondiscrimination and housing and employment,” Dabakis said.
The debate in Indiana would be prevented in Utah with a bill addressing discrimination in public accommodations, according to Dabakis. Without a proposal, like his, he believes the state is lacking proper protections for its residents.
"Right now, a gay couple can go to a hotel, it's called public accommodations, and the hotel manager can say, "No, I don't deal with gay people,’" Dabakis said.
But it’s a problem some don’t think the state should even tackle.
"Currently, our system allows for both people to be satisfied by not addressing the issue,” said Bill Duncan, director of conservative think-tank, Sutherland Institute.
Since Indiana’s governor signed the RFRA into law, several major businesses have threatened to leave the state. Duncan believes the existing laws in Utah are why businesses want to come here.
“I don't think that there is a need for us to get into the question of micromanaging businesses when we don't have any sense at this point that they are doing anything wrong,” he said. “I don’t see the need for that.”
As the debate only grows in states, such as Indiana, lawmakers could inevitably be faced with the issue here. Dabakis hopes its sooner, rather than later.
“Eventually, we are going to need to level the playing field everywhere,” Dabakis said.
As a result of the religious liberties law in Indiana, several corporations have criticized the state and threatened to leave. Business-ratings site, Angie’s List, has even announced they will not expand in the state, due to its passage. Dabakis is openly inviting the company to come to Utah, which he hopes will only improve and broaden its protections.
“I can hopefully get in and have a serious conversation about the problems that Angie's List and a lot of companies are having with Indiana and states that discriminate and say, 'You know what? In Utah, we've got the model. We don't discriminate,’" he said.