On March 12, 2015, Utah signed into law a bill that protects individuals on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment and housing. The law contains certain exceptions for religious organizations and permits employers to maintain reasonable dress codes and sex-specific facilities. Here are the details on the employment protections. 

Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation Prohibited 

The new law adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected characteristics under Utah’s employment discrimination law, making it unlawful for Utah employers to refuse to hire, promote, discharge, demote, terminate, retaliate against, harass or discriminate in compensation or any other terms of employment because of an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The full list of protected groups under Utah law is now race, color, sex, pregnancy/childbirth, age, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Defined 

Sexual orientation is defined as an individual’s actual or perceived orientation as heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual. Gender identity is defined by reference to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) which refers to individuals who see and feel themselves to be a different gender than their assigned gender. 

Reasonable Dress Codes and Sex-Specific Facilities Permitted 

The new law specifically addresses two frequent concerns for employers. First, the new law allows employers to adopt reasonable dress and grooming standards and second, employers are allowed to adopt reasonable policies that designate sex-specific facilities, such as restrooms, shower rooms and dressing facilities. 

Exemptions for Religious Organizations and Protecting Religious Expression 

The new law protects religious organizations and the expression of religious beliefs. The list of excluded religious groups was expanded through this law to include not only religious organizations, associations and corporations, but also religious societies, educational institutions and leaders, and the Boy Scouts of America. 

State Law Trumps Local Laws 

This new state law supersedes and preempts any laws, ordinances or regulations related to the prohibition of employment discrimination passed by a city, county or other local or state governmental entity. This should help employers maintain uniform policies statewide without having to account for local anti-discrimination laws. Complaints will be handled by the state antidiscrimination division. Recovery under the law is limited to actual damages, not punitive damages. 

Practice Points to Employers 

These new employment protections will affect many of your employment communications so take time now to: 

  • Review and understand the new law;
  • Revise harassment and retaliation policies to include sexual orientation and gender identity as prohibited bases for harassment and retaliation; remember such statements might be contained in your employee handbook, on your job applications, in recruiting and training materials and on your website; and
  • Train managers and supervisors on the new law.