Push for Utah gay-rights laws gets its first test today

Common Ground » Legislation on probate rights goes to committee review
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The LDS Church has yet to reply to Equality Utah's invitation to back gay-rights legislation. But an even more daunting group is waiting to be courted: the Legislature.

Today, the first of a series of six bills -- proposed by Democratic lawmakers and endorsed by gay-rights groups -- faces the Senate Judiciary Interim Committee. The leadoff legislation would allow someone to name an unmarried partner as a designee in the case of a wrongful death.

Together, the bills make up the so-called Common Ground Initiative, which also includes proposals for a statewide domestic-partner registry, health benefits for gay couples and partial repeal of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. The initiative marks a bold move in a state where the Republican-dominated Legislature has fought gay student clubs, stopped gay couples from adopting children and barred any domestic unions that would give same-sex couples rights traditionally granted to married couples.

The movement takes its cue from remarks by the LDS Church in the wake of the passage of Proposition 8, California's measure to ban same-sex-marriage. The church, which pushed the ballot measure but did not oppose California's domestic-partner registry, stated it "does not object" to rights for gay couples regarding health care, probate, fair housing and employment.

"The planets are aligned," said Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City, who will sponsor laws to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people from being fired or evicted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

"Utahns have never been more aware that there currently exist no protections for members of the LGBT community."

But she acknowledged it will be a "challenge" to get all of the laws passed.

Incoming House Speaker David Clark, R-Santa Clara, said he is "absolutely" against changing any part of Amendment 3, Utah's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriages. The Common Ground Initiative includes a bill to remove the amendment's second part, which prohibits civil unions -- no matter the name --that give couples the "same or substantially equivalent legal effect" of marriage.

He questioned whether, with the passage of Amendment 3 in 2004, there was a need for further legislation regarding rights for same-sex couples.

"What has dramatically changed that would bring about a different discussion?" he asked. "I'm not quite sure why the need to move beyond the position where we currently are, but we'll look at the bills."

Senate President-elect Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said a domestic-partner registry would have to be crafted to include any financially interdependent pairs -- such as a brother and sister who live together-- not just same-sex couples, to avoid running afoul of Amendment 3. Earlier this year, the Legislature allowed Salt Lake City's mutual-commitment registry to take effect after determining it was not exclusively aimed at gay couples and requiring that "domestic partner" be dropped from the catalog's name.

If the proposed statewide registry is "uniform" in its treatment of interdependent adults, Waddoups said, "they've got an excellent chance of being heard. If they deal with sexuality, I think they're in deep trouble."

Clark and Waddoups said they oppose adding mandates to employer-sponsored health-insurance programs.

Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, who sponsored a failed "mutual-dependence benefits contract" in 2005, acknowledged the LDS Church could be a "player, no question" -- although "not the last word" -- in the debate over the gay-rights bills. He's open to discussing those measures provided they don't "threaten traditional marriage."

The LDS Church, which encouraged its members to volunteer and donate to the Prop. 8 campaign, does not plan to comment on the Common Ground Initiative "for the time being," church spokeswoman Kim Farah said Tuesday in an e-mail.

That also is the position of another major player in Utah politics: Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. The popular governor backed Bell's failed benefits contract in 2005, but spokeswoman Lisa Roskelley said he would wait to read "specific language" before endorsing any of the 2009 bills.

Most of the bills have yet to be crafted, but Sen. Scott McCoy's probate measure is ready to go -- to the interim committee today.


A closer look at the 'Common Ground Initiative'

After Proposition 8's passage, the LDS Church stated it "does not object to rights for same-sex couples regarding hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights, or probate rights, so long as these do not infringe on the integrity of the traditional family or the constitutional rights of churches."

Given that stance, Equality Utah and other gay-rights advocates hope to pass six bills, codifying those rights, during the 2009 legislative session:

Medical care » Mandate that any insurance plans extended to employees' spouses also be offered to unmarried partners. Sponsor: To be determined.

Fair housing and employment » Make it illegal, through two separate bills, to fire an employee or evict a tenant for being gay or transgender. Sponsor: Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City.

Probate rights » Allow someone, via a will or trust, to choose an unmarried partner or other financially dependent relative as a wrongful-death designee. Sponsor: Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City.

Domestic-partner rights » Create a statewide domestic-partner registry that would provide rights of inheritance, insurance and fair housing. Sponsor: Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City.

Repeal a portion of Amendment 3 » Eliminate the second part of Utah's constitutional gay-marriage ban to avoid confusion about what protections are the legal equivalent of marriage. Sponsor: Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake City.

What's next

A legislature interim committee today will consider a measure that would allow someone, in a will or trust, to choose an unmarried partner or other financially dependent relative as a wrongful-death designee.