The Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) board, which rarely takes a stance on individual bills in the legislature, has joined the voices supporting a bill calling for non-discrimination in employment and housing based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
The board voted unanimously to support the measure, currently in the form of SB100, after hearing from a pair of corporate executives.
As of the middle of last week, SB100 remained in the Senate Rules Committee and had not been heard by a standing committee. Such a non-discrimination bill has been proposed in previous years, but is expected to have a better chance of passing this year because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is supporting legislation across the nation that provides protections in housing, employment and other areas for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) people if those measures do not compromise religious freedom.
“It’s an important initiative,” GOED board member Jerry Oldroyd said of SB100. “It’s important to make a statement. I agree absolutely, fundamentally, we should state we support non-discrimination as a matter of what we do as a state, for no other reason than have companies realize how important and how committed we are. It is a good economic development effort.…”
SB100, sponsored by Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, would add sexual orientation and gender identity to a list of prohibited bases for discrimination in employment and housing practices. The list already includes race; color; sex; pregnancy, childbirth or pregnancy-related conditions; age, if a person is 40 years old or older; religion; national origin and disability.
The bill notes that “employer” does not include religious organizations or associations. It also says an employer does not include “an organization engaged in public or private expression if employing an individual would affect in a significant way the organization’s ability to advocate public or private viewpoints protected by the freedom of expressive association described in decisions of the United States Supreme Court or the Utah Supreme Court.”
At the GOED board’s February meeting, Michael Weinholtz, executive chairman of CHG Healthcare Services, and Megan Holbrook, senior vice president of government relations for Zions Bank, both spoke in support of SB100.
“We’ve grown this business by adding great people,” Weinholtz said about CHG. “We predominantly hire Utah-based people but occasionally we have to recruit from the outside — executive talent, technology talent — and very often particularly the younger workers have questions about moving to Utah and diversity and fairness, and I think nothing could be a better example of fairness than to have a statewide non-discrimination bill.”
Weinholtz, whose physician staffing services company has more than 1,000 employees and operates in all 50 states, said passing such a measure would help Utah attract top talent. The “war for talent” has existed for the past decade and is projected to worsen, he said.
“I think it benefits businesses to cast their net as wide as possible to as broad a possible sector of potential employees and not overlook certain sectors of the potential employee base,” he said.
“Occasionally when we are talking to people from out of state who want to relocate to our headquarters here, they do ask about diversity and fairness, they do ask about if there is a non-discrimination law in place here. I would tell you, not every employee asks about that, but it does come up. And in a situation where there is a war for talent for businesses [that is] growing, I think it makes great business sense, it’s a great business case, for having a statewide non-discrimination bill.”
His company has employees living in several Utah counties and he worries that some “may not be getting the same fair treatment based on where they live” because not all localities have non-discrimination ordinances.
“I think it would be great for businesses to have clarity on the statewide non-discrimination law. And I also think it would attract more people moving to Utah, and I think it would just be one more feather in the cap of Utah as a great place to do business. This would be one more positive aspect in which the state would be viewed,” he said.
“Just taking all these other kinds of arguments out, I think it’s just great for business because it shows that the state is not only open for business but it’s open to everyone for business.”
After the board vote, chairman Mel Lavitt said he hopes the bill passes and that the board’s support is one of the reasons.
“What makes Silicon Valley work — and we’re trying to emulate them all the time — is they don’t care what race, color, sexual preference, religion, etc., anybody is,” Lavitt said. “All they care is, are you smart and do you want to work hard? And that’s what makes it work. You need to have the same view here in Utah or else our companies will never grow because it’s just too hard to get the talent that we need to grow.”
Following the church’s Jan. 27 announcement, the Salt Lake Chamber issued a statement saying it was “grateful” for the church’s stance “that balances non-discrimination protections with religious liberties.”
“In 2009, the Salt Lake Chamber supported Salt Lake City’s non-discrimination ordinance. We believe a standardized statewide law protecting against employment and housing discrimination while guaranteeing religious liberty is good for Utah’s economy,” Lane Beattie, the chamber’s president and chief executive officer, said in the statement. “We are hopeful that the legislature will act to ensure these protections for all involved. We encourage a civil and mutually respectful discussion on this issue.”
There still are concerns that SB100 will clash with other legislation. For example, HJR5, sponsored by Rep. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, proposes a constitutional amendment that would prevent a religious organization, institution or entity, or individual acting in a role connected with a religious organization, institution or entity, from being required to “perform, solemnize, execute or recognize any rite, ceremony, service or ordinance that the religious organization, institution or entity determines to be inconsistent with its tenets, doctrines or beliefs.”
As of the middle of last week, HJR5 was in the House Rules Committee.