SALT LAKE CITY – With a historic endorsement from the Mormon church, the Salt Lake City Council unanimously passed a pair of ordinances making it illegal to discriminate against gays in housing and employment.
Tuesday's action was the first time the Utah-based church — which has been steadfast in its opposition to gay marriage — has publicly supported gay rights legislation.
"The church supports these ordinances because they are fair and reasonable and do not do violence to the institution of marriage," Michael Otterson, the director of public affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said.
The vote makes Salt Lake City the first Utah community to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The measures make it illegal to fire someone from their job or evict someone from their residence because they are lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgender.
"What happened here tonight I do believe is a historic event," Brandie Balken, director of Equality Utah, which works on gay rights legislation.
But Otterson said the endorsement was not a shift in the church's position on gay rights, and he stressed it "remains unequivocally committed to defending the bedrock foundation of marriage between a man and a woman."
Though this was the church's first public endorement of legislation, in August 2008 the church issued a statement saying it supports gay rights related to hospitalization, medical care, housing or probate as long as they "do not infringe on the integrity of the traditional family or the constitutional rights of churches."
The church has been consistent in its position and has actively worked against marriage equality legislation since the 1990s.
Last year, the church came under fire for its high-profile role in the effort to pass Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative that banned gay marriage. Since the November 2008 vote, the church has been widely criticized and its temples and meeting houses have been targeted with protests and vandalism.
Church support for the ordinances is due in part to the way they are drafted to carve out exceptions that protect the religious freedoms of all churches, according to Under the exceptions, for example, a church owned school that sets rules based on its religious principles would not be forced to change them if the ordinance becomes law.
Previous Utah legislation that sought statewide protections for the gay community did not contain those exceptions.
The church's support for an anti-discrimination ordinance may also have broad reaching effects in this highly conservative state where more than 80 percent of state lawmakers and the governor are church members.
The church rarely involves itself with political issues, but when it do does, lawmakers in both parties here tend to quickly fall in line with its position.
The church's silence on a package of gay rights bills known as the Common Ground Initiative doomed them this past legislative session, despite the bill having the support of the most popular governor in state history, Jon Huntsman. Huntsman resigned this summer to become U.S. ambassador to China.
His successor, Gov. Gary Herbert, has repeatedly said it shouldn't be illegal to discriminate against someone for being gay.