SALT LAKE CITY - A landmark Utah proposal protecting gay and transgender individuals passed its first test at the state Legislature on Thursday when a Republican-controlled Senate committee offered its unanimous and at times emotional support of the measure.
Todd Weiler, a Republican senator from Woods Cross, said he comes from "a conservative, Mormon background" but he's met many transgender individuals, including one in his neighborhood who grew up with his son.
"I don't understand those things," Weiler said, "I understand that those people are different than I am, and that they have rights, and I am 100 percent convinced that they should be protected."
Weiler, who fought to stay composed, said the bill would send a message to young people struggling with their identity.
The bill, which has earned the rare stamp of approval from the Utah-based Mormon church, bars discrimination against gay and transgender individuals while protecting the rights of religious groups and individuals.
It advances to the full Senate, which has scheduled a hearing and vote for Friday. Republican Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday that if the bill makes it to his desk, he'll sign it.
Drafters of the bill said they hope it serves as a model for other states.
Idaho state Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, a Democratic lawmaker who has pushed to get an anti-LGBT discrimination measure passed for years, said Utah's proposal gives her hope.
"It's encouraging to see a state moving forward," Buckner-Webb said. "Utah has many similarities with Idaho. It's inevitable that it will happen here."
During a two-hour hearing Thursday in Salt Lake City, lawmakers heard from gay and transgender residents who described their fears and experiences.
Neca Allgood, of Syracuse, appeared with her 20-year-old child Grayson Moore, who is transgender.
"I want him to be hired and promoted on the basis of his ability, effort and education, rather than his gender identity," Allgood said.
They also heard from religious and conservative groups who spoke against the measure.
Several conservative senators supporting the bill said they felt it provides equally strong protections for LGBT people as it does for the religious.
The proposal prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation when it comes to housing or employment. Religious groups and organizations would be exempt from the requirement, as would their affiliates.
For example, Brigham Young University, a private school owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, would be exempt.
Beyond banning discrimination based on identity and sexual orientation, the proposal stipulates that employers can adopt "reasonable dress and grooming standards" and "reasonable rules and polices" for sex-specific restrooms and other facilities, as long as those standards also include accommodations for gender identity.
For example, companies could offer a unisex, stand-alone restroom for use instead of a larger restroom with a bank of stalls.
Supporters of the proposal say they've left some room for companies to interpret what is a reasonable accommodation because they cannot pass a law to deal with all scenarios.
The proposal also protects the right of an individual employee to express their religious or moral beliefs in "a reasonable, non-disruptive or non-harassing way," as long as it doesn't interfere with the company's business.
"If, for example, I worked at Planned Parenthood, it would be totally appropriate for them to say you can't wear one of those little buttons that has the 'Right to Life,' with the fetus on it," said University of Illinois law professor Robin Fretwell Wilson, who helped Utah lawmakers draft the proposal.
Wilson said if a company allows employers to express any political or religious beliefs at work, they would have to allow all opinions to be expressed without any retribution. The bill would not allow employers to punish workers for beliefs expressed on one's own time, such as donating to a campaign against same-sex marriage.
One of those speaking in support of the bill was Eric Moutsos, a former Salt Lake City police officer who was put on leave and later resigned after he objected for religious reasons to participating in the city's gay pride parade last summer.
Moutsos tried to swap with another officer but said his superiors called him intolerant and then suspended him. Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank has stood behind the agency's handling of the matter.
"Through this experience, I have gained greater compassion and empathy for anyone who has lost their job because of who they are," Moutsos said. "No one should be forced to choose between their job and their conscience."
The proposal also includes a specific exemption for the Boy Scouts of America, which has a ban on gay adult Scout leaders. The organization did not participate in negotiations.
The organization was included because of a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision recognizing its constitutional right to exclude gay members. The organization now allows openly gay youth.
The Mormon church said it is fully behind the legislation, which follows the principles set out in its call for laws that balance religious rights and LGBT protections.
Brady McCombs and Kelly Catalfamo contributed to this story from Salt Lake City; and Kimberlee Kruesi in Boise, Idaho.