Multiple controversial bills open the 2024 Utah legislative session

Jan 16, 2024, 8:34 PM | Updated: Jan 17, 2024, 6:50 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Tuesday was the first day of Utah’s 2024 legislative session and it’s already starting at a break-neck pace.

Dozens of bills have already been heard on the floor in at least one chamber. Two highly anticipated bills dealing with equity are some of the early bills to be debated in committees Wednesday.

The first of these bills, HB261, replaces diversity equity and inclusion offices at public colleges with “success centers,” and eliminates diversity statements in hiring practices.

The bill states that schools can’t promote “differential treatment” based on an “individual’s race, color, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, or gender identity. That includes by way of a “policy, procedure, practice, program, office, initiative, or required training.”

This would also apply to K-12 schools, the state school board, and governmental entities including cities and counties.

“That’s anything that’s considered government, local county, I mean, you name it,” said Sen. Minority Leader Luz Escamilla. “So that is the alarming part for us.”

As an example, this bill could impact Salt Lake County’s Health Department that Escamilla said may have programs giving additional resources for people of color.

“There are differences between different races when it comes to health outcomes,” she said.

The Republican sponsors of the bill say it creates “equal opportunity.”

“This bill is the first major bill that eliminates diversity statements across the board for higher ed, public ed, and government entities and then focuses on academic freedom, which establishes the ability for everyone to say whatever it is they need to say on campus,” said the bill’s senate sponsor, Sen. Keith Grover.

“I believe this bill is the bill that captures the intent of whatever DEI was meant to do 20, 30 years ago,” Grover said. “It reestablishes the norms, making sure that all students have access to education and help regardless of their circumstance.”

Rep. Katy Hall said the bill limits “discriminatory” practices.

“We’re not trying to say no to anyone or put anyone in a box or in a different group. And so this is opening it up to anyone that need’s it,” she said.

Democrats say the bill sends the wrong message, regardless of what it does.

“I hear … the stories of all of our young people in the school system and the discrimination that they are facing. And now we’re passing a bill saying diversity doesn’t matter, it no longer matters in the schools?” Rep. Sandra Hollins said.

The bill will be heard in the House Education Committee Wednesday starting at 2 p.m.

Bathroom designations

Another big bill set to bring a lot of debate is one that creates a definition of male and female and says which bathrooms can be used in publicly funded facilities.

It defines a female as having “the characteristic of an individual whose biological reproductive system is of the general type that functions to produce ova” and male as “the characteristic of an individual whose biological reproductive system is of the general type that functions to fertilize the ova of a female.”

The bill requires male and females to use the bathroom or locker room corresponding with the sex on their birth certificate unless they’ve changed that or undergone gender reassignment surgery. The bill also requires state buildings to provide more unisex or single stall restrooms.

It also holds the government entity accountable and subject to fines if they don’t provide enough “privacy spaces.”

Democrats also take issue with this bill.

“Bathrooms are for the elimination of urine and stool,” said Rep. Jenifer Plumb. “That is a biological need for every living creature. You have to eliminate those things. And then you say to some members of our society, We’re not going to give you that decency. We’re going to take that from you.”

Doctor and Rep. Rosemary Lesser took issue with the definition of “female.”

“I’m a little concerned about kind of what the definition of female is related to the ability to produce eggs.” said Rep. Rosmary Lesser. “And, you know, quite honestly, as a postmenopausal woman, I no longer produce eggs, but clearly, I am still seeing female gender.”

“Girls don’t produce eggs until puberty, and many women in the course of their reproductive life may have periods of where they don’t also don’t produce eggs. So in making that a definite and what it will do is there’s some very obvious areas of confusion,” she added.

“Quite honestly, I have never seen that type of definition for the female gender anywhere related to a biologically sake,” said Lesser.

Democratic leaders said they can see the writing on the wall in a Republican supermajority legislature with both bills and acknowledged the need for pushback.

“We’re fighting for our freedom to be healthy prosperous and safe. That’s our priority. We recognize that we all have bills that we priorities, but sometimes we have to be on the defensive when it comes to legislation,” Escamilla said.

That bill gets its first committee hearing in the Business and Labor Committee Wednesday at 2 p.m.

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Multiple controversial bills open the 2024 Utah legislative session