Utah Gay Rights Initiative Dies

Ontop Magazine/February 18, 2009

Gay folks in Utah waiting for the world to change will need to continue waiting. The Utah state Legislature has terminated a series of gay rights bills called the Common Ground Initiative.

Encouraged by positive statements made by leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) during the campaign to ban gay marriage in California, Equality Utah recruited openly gay state Senator Scott McCoy to introduce the gay rights bills.

"Throughout the campaign, while the LDS Church stated its support for Proposition 8 [the measure that banned gay marriage], it also made repeated comments that the Church 'does not object to rights for same-sex couples regarding hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights, or probate rights'," said Equality Utah Board Chairwoman Stephanie Pappas in announcing the gay legislation effort. "Just last week, Elder L. Whitney Clayton stated the LDS Church does not oppose 'civil unions or domestic partnerships'."

The Mormon church remains a powerful influence in Utah, where a majority of its members live.

The Common Ground Initiative closely straddled the pro-gay positions expressed by the church. A pair of bills would have created a domestic partner registry for gay and lesbian couples by repealing a part of Utah's constitutional marriage amendment. The group said they had no plans to pursue gay marriage, which Mormon leaders say they cannot abide.

Of the five bills introduced in January, none remain. Democratic Rep. Jackie Biskupsi of Salt Lake City yanked back her bill that would have repealed a portion of Utah's gay marriage ban. Another bill that sought to give gay couples the ability to sue in the event the other suffers a wrongful death ended in committee.

On Tuesday, two bills, which had survived out of the House Rules Committee - a bill which would have allowed unmarried gay or straight couples to adopt and foster children and another that sought to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination in the areas of housing and employment - were snuffed out after public hearings.

And this morning, lawmakers dealt the final blow, taking down Rep. Jennifer Seelig's HB160, which would have offered gay and straight, unmarried adults living together rights of inheritance and medical decision making for one another.

Opponents called for defeat of the measures because being gay was a "choice."

"What we're talking about is a choice - someone's sexual choice," Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka told a House panel discussing the employment and fair housing bill. "Why would we put into law someone's sexual choice? ... This is not the right thing to do."

Debate on the bills at times became overheated.

Utah Governor Jon Hunstman was chided by social conservatives after expressing his support for civil unions for gay and lesbians couples.

Forever America, a group that opposed the gay rights push, purchased two full page advertisements that appeared in Sunday's The Tribune and Deseret News condemning the governor's position.

The ads called on Utahns to "stop the homosexual movement," compared being gay to being a prostitute or drug addict, and labeled gay men and lesbians as "anti-species behavior."

Gay rights supporters say they will return next year.

"The majority of Utahns support these basic protections," Equality Utah Executive Director Mike Thompson told the Salt Lake Tribune after the final bill died.

"We are not giving up on these issues," he said.

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