Panel OKs first gay-rights measure

Legislature » The bill clears a hurdle, but not without opposition.
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The first in a series of gay-rights bills being pushed for the 2009 legislative session cleared a committee Wednesday, but not without drawing staunch opposition from conservative activists.

The pushback over Sen. Scott McCoy's wrongful-death measure -- one of the seemingly least controversial bills proposed as part of Equality Utah's Common Ground Initiative -- could signal a tough slog for the gay-rights group and the legislators carrying the six bills. The initiative also calls for creating a statewide domestic-partner registry and forcing employers with family health plans to extend those benefits to unmarried partners.

McCoy, D-Salt Lake City, wants to amend state law so that financial dependents -- besides spouses, parents and children -- could sue if a breadwinner suffers a wrongful death.

The measure could be used by same-sex couples and other nontraditional households, such as one in which a grandmother relies on a grandson for financial support. Unlike spouses, parents and children, a wrongful-death designee would have to prove a financially dependent relationship with the victim to go to court.

"I bent over backwards to make sure the bill did not offend the state's [ban on gay marriage]," McCoy said.

But five foes of gay marriage, including Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka, lined up to urge the Judiciary Interim Committee to thwart the bill. Ruzicka argued that the California Supreme Court used existing legal protections for same-sex couples to justify allowing gay marriage -- a decision overturned this month when voters approved Proposition 8.

"Maybe on their own, by themselves, [the Common Ground bills] seem harmless enough," Ruzicka said, but she noted, "they add up."

Stephen Graham, president of the Standard of Liberty Foundation, said McCoy's bill was part of a "radical civil-rights movement" that is a "movement away from God."

The committee's co-chairman, Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, asked the those commenting to limit their remarks to McCoy's bill.

Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake City, who plans to sponsor a Common Ground measure, declared the meeting "out of control" after Valerie Mills of Bountiful's Citizens for Families argued the "collapse of traditional marriage" is leading to high rates of child anxiety and obesity.

In the end, the committee voted 10-4 to forward McCoy's bill, with a favorable recommendation, to the 2009 legislative session, but only after adding language that explicitly states the protection "cannot be construed" as treating a financially dependent relationship the same as a marriage or a civil union.

Bell, a self-described culture-war "soldier" who helped craft Amendment 3, Utah's same-sex-marriage ban, said McCoy's bill would have passed constitutional muster even without the addition.

"This does nothing to undermine traditional marriage," he said before voting to advance the measure. "There are relationships in our society that do warrant some governmental protections."

Equality Utah Executive Director Michael Thompson said the hearing revealed "much education is still needed when discussing rights for gay and transgender people."

He added: "We truly believe we can discover common ground on these issues."

Bills' intent

Equality Utah and other gay-rights advocates hope to pass six bills, enhancing protections for gay and transgender people, during the 2009 legislative session:

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

Fair housing and employment » Make it illegal, through two separate bills, to fire an employee or evict a tenant for being gay or transgender.

Probate rights » Allow an unmarried partner or other financially dependent relative to sue in the event of a wrongful death.

Domestic-partner rights » Create a statewide domestic-partner registry that would provide rights of inheritance, insurance and fair housing.

Repeal a portion of 2004's 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.