BROCK VERGAKIS

The Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday that discriminating against gay people shouldn't be illegal, although he would prefer it if everyone were treated with respect.

In his most definitive comments yet on gay rights, Herbert told reporters he doesn't believe sexual orientation should be a protected class in the way that race, gender and religion are.

"We don't have to have a rule for everybody to do the right thing. We ought to just do the right thing because it's the right thing to do and we don't have to have a law that punishes us if we don't,"Herbert said in his first monthly KUED news conference.

In Utah, it is legal to fire someone for being gay or transgender. The gay rights advocacy group Equality Utah has been trying to change state law for several years but has always been rebuffed by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Last year, the group got Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman's support for extending some rights to gay people, although none of the bills it backed became law.

Huntsman resigned earlier this month to become U.S. ambassador to China, leaving Herbert, who was lieutenant governor, in charge of the state until a special election in 2010.

Will Carlson, Equality Utah's public policy director, said Herbert's comments show he doesn't understand how prevalent discrimination is against gay and transgender people in Utah.

"I agree that we ought to be able to just do the right thing. Unfortunately, the Salt Lake City Human Rights Commission makes it clear that not all employers are doing the right thing," he said, referencing a city report released earlier this summer that said discrimination was rampant.

Salt Lake City is considering an anti-discrimination ordinance, but conservative state lawmakers already are eyeing passage of a state law that would trump it.

Herbert reserved judgment on the ordinance until he's had a chance to read it, but said he doesn't like the idea of protected classes in general.

"Where do you stop? I mean that's the problem going down that slippery road. Pretty soon we're going to have a special law for blue-eyed blondes or people who are losing their hair a little bit," Herbert said. "There's some support for about anything we put out there. I'm just saying we end up getting bogged down sometimes with the minutiae of things that government has really no role to be involved in."

Carlson said he wants to arrange a meeting with Herbert to help him understand the problems gay Utahns face.

"We don't have an epidemic of blonde-haired, blue-eyed people getting fired or evicted. We do have a situation where gay and transgender people are being evicted and losing their jobs, not for job performance, but because they're gay or transgender," he said.