While Utahns aren't ready to let gay and lesbian couples exchange wedding vows or enter civil unions, most are willing to give them broader legal rights to inherit property, visit a partner in the hospital and ward off employment discrimination.
A Salt Lake Tribune poll finds that 56 percent of Utah voters support increased legal protections for same-sex couples -- a potential boon for Democratic state lawmakers who intend to introduce a package of gay-rights bills this legislative session.
However, the poll shows overwhelming opposition (70 percent) to any changes to the Utah Constitution that would allow same-sex partners to enter civil unions. Utahns, 54 percent of them, also are wary of letting unmarried couples, including gay and lesbian partners, adopt or foster children.
"People should have, under the law, the same rights," says poll respondent Gary Weston, of Murray, who favors some legal protections for same-sex partners but not civil unions. "What they should not have is a circumstance that permits or invites the law to recognize a [relationship] that would permit gays and lesbians to raise children who are in the formative years of their lives."
The poll -- conducted by Washington, D.C.-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Research on Jan. 8 and 9 -- reflects the opinions of 500 registered Utah voters. It has a 4.5 percent margin of error.
Although disheartening for gay-rights advocates who would prefer a policy-path toward civil unions, the survey offers hope to backers of a legislative push known as the Common Ground Initiative. This five-bill package would make it illegal to discriminate against gay or transgender employees, provide wider rights for inheritance and health insurance and give same-sex partners the ability to sue in cases of wrongful death, among other things.
The poll shows Utahns have a "basic sense of compassion and fairness that says we should entertain the possibility of giving basic legal protections to these nontraditional families," says Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City, who is sponsoring the bill about probate benefits.
Even in the LDS community, public opinion splits almost 50-50 on whether gay and lesbian couples should receive some legal protections. However, 85 percent of Mormons side against civil unions and about two-thirds reject allowing unmarried couples to adopt or foster children.
The LDS Church has not taken a position on the Common Ground Initiative. However, the church's Web site suggests that LDS leaders would not object to wider same-sex benefits on matters of fair housing, employment protection, probate rights and medical care.
"The personal ramifications of not allowing life partners to participate in medical care and medical decisions, and to freely visit their loved ones, are profound," said poll respondent Kathleen Sitzman, professor of nursing at Weber State University. "It is cruel to remove one's life partner at a time when they need that support."
While Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, doubts Utahns would change the state constitution to permit civil unions, he said he would entertain bills on more-expansive legal rights for gays.
"The fact that anybody wants [wider rights] is grounds to pursue it and investigate it," said Waddoups, adding that he would ensure the Common Ground bills get a fair debate if they make it to committee or the Senate floor.
But opposition certainly will follow from Utahns such as poll respondent Maureen Johnson.
"I don't believe they should have any rights at all," said the South Jordan resident. "The Lord says the man is made for the woman and the woman is made for the man."
Even so, the poll suggests most Utahns lean toward more-inclusive policies -- a perspective that buoys Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, who will advocate a statewide domestic-partner registry.
"It is a basic policy change that we can make," she said, "to help people take care of each other and to help maintain and facilitate community stability."