Gay rights activists face charges over sit-in at Utah Legislature

SALT LAKE CITY Thu Aug 28, 2014 1:23pm EDT

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SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Thirteen Utah gay rights activists briefly arrested six months ago during a sit-in at the State Capitol to demand lawmakers consider an anti-discrimination bill are now facing misdemeanor charges linked to the protest, according to state court records.

Salt Lake City prosecutors filed a single misdemeanor count of disrupting a meeting or procession against each of the 13 late on Wednesday. The charge carries a maximum penalty of up to six months in the county jail. 

All 13 - eight men and five women - plan to enter not guilty pleas when they appear at a Sept. 26 arraignment in the Salt Lake City Justice Court, group spokesman Troy Williams said on Thursday.

"We engaged in an act of civil disobedience because we love this state and we love this nation. We simply want gay and transgender Utahns to have a fair shot," said Williams, who is among those charged.

“Utah legislators have blocked us out of the democratic process. But we will continue to work until all Utahns enjoy equal protection under the law,” he added.

The activists were arrested in February after blocking access to the governor’s office and a Capitol meeting room in hopes of forcing state lawmakers to advance a bill that would ban discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in housing and employment matters.

The bill offers a religious exemption to churches, including Utah’s predominant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Republican-dominated Utah Legislature had blocked the legislation in each of the past five years.

This year, lawmakers cited a pending legal fight over a federal court ruling that temporarily legalized gay marriage in Utah as grounds for another delay. Gay marriage remains on hold in Utah pending an appeal.

More than a dozen Utah cities have already passed local anti-discrimination ordinances. Salt Lake City’s measure was the first and had the backing of the conservative Mormon Church. More than 90 percent of Utah’s state lawmakers are Mormon.

Statewide polls, including one from Church-owned Brigham Young University, show as many as 72 percent of Utahns support a non-discrimination law. Republican Governor Gary Herbert has said he also supported the concept of a non-discrimination bill.

(Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)

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