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Religious freedom and anti-bias bills announced at pro-traditional marriage gathering

LEHI — Supporters of traditional marriage rallied support Thursday for three bills that would respond to a December federal court ruling that struck down Utah's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage and a statewide nondiscrimination law.

The three bills are sponsored by Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, who asked more than 1,000 people gathered at Thanksgiving Point to speak out against a "sexual stratagem" that has divided political loyalties and threatens religious liberty.

"Ladies and gentlemen, do not allow the loss of religious liberty to be the inevitable inheritance you pass onto your children and their children because you would not sacrifice for their freedoms of religion and religious conscience," Reid said.

The event sponsored by the conservative Sutherland Institute and First Freedoms Coalition was the largest of three similar First Freedom Forums held in St. George and Logan to rally support for the bills.

While the bills are still being drafted, neither Reid nor Sutherland President Paul Mero provided any details on what they would entail. However, general descriptions indicate they would protect individual religious conscience rights, require religious freedom instruction in public schools, and establish a nondiscrimination law that "avoids sexual politics."

Reid's nondiscrimination proposal would be an alternative to SB100, another anti-bias proposal that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing and employment practices.

Reid's anti-discrimination proposal would only be introduced if SB100, sponsored by Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, gets a hearing. Urquhart's proposal cleared a Senate committee last year but wasn't debated on the floor.

"As a member of the committee, I voted against the legislation because I believe that homosexual activity is immoral," Reid said, acknowledging that his decision was discriminatory.

But he explained that society has always discriminated against immoral behavior, and last year's committee vote was the first time Utah lawmakers have "supported something immoral with special protections."

In an interview, Reid said his bill would supersede the municipal nondiscrimination ordinances that have been passed in 18 Utah cities, including Salt Lake City.

Mero said only three complaints have been filed under Salt Lake's ordinance and they were dismissed.

"Utah does not have a discrimination problem, unless mere political disagreement is now called discrimination," he said.

A bill that Reid won't hold in reserve is his proposed Religious Liberties Amendments. The legislation would prohibit the government from forcing someone to violate their religious conscience, unless there is a compelling state interest in doing so.

Such laws are not unprecedented and are patterned after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Congress passed in 1993. But after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled four years later that the law couldn't be applied to individual states, legislatures began passing their own such acts.

So far, 18 states have Religious Freedom Restoration Acts on their books, while 11 state supreme courts have indicated they would apply such standards in religious freedom claims, said Tim Schultz, state legislative policy director for the Ethics & Public Policy Center's American Religious Freedom Program in Washington, D.C.

"If you look at states that don’t have RFRAs, they are quintessential Bible belt states where there has been a perception that religious freedom is not under threat because of the culture," Schultz said.

If that was the perception in Utah, it changed dramatically in December when federal Judge Robert J. Shelby found Utah's voter-approved definition of marriage as the legal union between a man and a woman violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay pending the state's appeal to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver but not before more than 1,000 gay and lesbian couples married during a 17-day period following the ruling.

Mero blasted Shelby's ruling, saying it "threw the state's interest in marriage under the bus."

"There is an obvious societal or state interest in supporting traditional marriage and the natural family," he said. "Men, women and children are happier, healthier, better educated, more prosperous and physically safer in the nurturing confines of a traditional marriage and natural family — all uplifting qualities that further the cause of freedom."

One of the main sticking points in states where gay rights have run up against religious freedom is whether individuals can deny public services to a gay or lesbian couples for religious reasons.

In a few celebrated cases involving wedding services, courts have ruled against a New Mexico wedding photographer and bakers in Oregon and Colorado who claimed their faith prohibited them from accommodating a gay marriage.

Reid said his Religious Liberties bill would allow an individual to deny services in those situations based on religious beliefs.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said he hasn't seen Reid's bill but that no state has gone so far to allow individuals to refuse service to gays or lesbians based on religious conscience.

"It scares me that this kind of extremism leads to incivility and non-respect for all Utahns," said Dabakis, who married his longtime partner after Shelby's ruling. "That's really not the high road that we need to take."

Both Reid and Mero urged the audience to treat those they disagree with civilly while giving those attending talking points to present to lawmakers who convene next week in a session where gays rights and religious freedom are sure to collide.

"In addition to a renewed support for traditional marriage and the natural family, I hope you leave here tonight with a renewed sense of citizenship and with a specific call to action," Mero said. "I hope you leave here tonight with a better understanding of what’s at stake and a better way to share your concerns with your elected representatives, family and neighbors."

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com Twitter: @deseretbrown