SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns overwhelmingly favor state laws that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace and housing, a new poll shows.
And a bill before the Utah Legislature to put those laws on the books is drawing sharp disagreement over what the laws would and would not do.
A Deseret News/KSL survey found that 72 percent of residents say Utah should make it against the law to fire someone from a job solely because they are gay or transgender. According to the poll, 23 percent oppose such a law and 5 percent are undecided.
Dan Jones & Associates/Cicero Group polled 746 Utahns statewide by telephone and cell-phone and online Jan. 14-16. The survey has a plus-or-minus 3.6 percent margin of error.
Utahns were less supportive when it comes to housing, but still in favor.
The poll shows 67 percent favor a law that would make it illegal to deny a person housing solely because they are gay or transgender, while 27 percent oppose such law. Another 6 percent said they don't know.
Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, for the second year in a row is sponsoring legislation for a statewide nondiscrimination law. The measure cleared a Senate committee last year but wasn't debated on the floor.
SB100 would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing and employment practices. It would not prevent an employer from requiring workers to dress and groom or use restrooms, shower facilities, or dressing rooms that are consistent with the employee's gender identity.
College dormitories, religious organizations or businesses owned by religious organizations and small businesses would be exempt from the law.
Paul Mero, president of Sutherland Institute, described the poll questions as "fluff" because he said although they accurately reflect Utahns' feelings, they don't get to the core issue.
The real question should be, he said, do Utahns support a statewide nondiscrimination law that would conflict with their "first" freedoms such as the free exercise of religion and speech.
"Having done research on this ourselves, we know that the answer to that is that Utahns highly prioritize their religious freedom and the right for people to say and do what they want to do over the feelings of compassion," he said.
Sutherland Institute, a Salt Lake-based conservative public policy think tank, used its internal research to craft a television ad campaign against Urquhart's bill that says Utahns don't understand a nondiscrimination law would give special rights to some people at the expense of others.
Mero said laws in other states have come down on people such as florists or bakers who, based on their religious beliefs, refused to work for same-sex weddings.
"That's the sticking point. That's the argument. It's not about being nice. It's about how an actual law conflicts with other competing rights," he said.
Urquhart said a lot of myths are being spread about his proposal.
"People are saying, 'Oh, my gosh if there's a gay wedding and I'm a florist or I'm a cake baker I'm going to have to provide services.' That's not true. That's absolutely not true. Those are public accommodation laws. That's not what this is," he said.
Urquhart said Utahns are big-hearted people who believe in inclusion. If asked whether someone should be fired or evicted for being gay, Utahns would say absolutely not, he said.
"Some might say we don't need a law to take care of that. Actually, we do. We have laws that have addressed that regarding race, gender and ethnicity. They've worked well, and this law will work well, too," he said.
The new poll shows that support for a statewide workplace nondiscrimination law reaches at least 70 percent for Democrats, Republicans and independents. The percentage favoring a law in housing dips to 68 percent among Republicans but stays at 70 percent or higher for Democrats and independents.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also support the proposed laws, with 67 percent of active Mormons in favor, according to the survey.
The latest poll results mirror what Jones found in a survey for Equality Utah in December 2011. The group advocates for equal rights and protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Utahns and their families.
That survey of 801 residents statewide showed 73 percent favored a nondiscrimination law that would make it illegal for someone to be fired from a job solely because they are gay or transgender. The same 73 percent also would make it illegal for someone to be evicted from housing solely because they are gay or transgender.