Gay-rights push suffers setback in Legislature

Common ground » Buttars' committee kills one bill, casting doubt on chances of other measures.
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It didn't take long for Utah gay-rights advocates, uplifted after energetic rallies and supportive polls, to be brought down to earth.

On day two of the 2009 Legislature, the first in a series of gay-rights bills -- seemingly the least controversial piece in the Common Ground Initiative -- died Tuesday in the Senate judiciary committee.

The early setback doesn't bode well for Equality Utah's campaign, possibly the most expansive legislative push for gay rights in state history.

"The very fact that this didn't even get out of Senate committee . . .is clearly a bad sign for other parts of this initiative," University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said.

Equality Utah's drive -- crafted in response to statements the LDS Church has made that it does not oppose some rights for same-sex couples -- includes creating a statewide domestic-partner registry and protecting someone from being fired or evicted for being gay.

Sen. Scott McCoy's SB32 would have amended state law so that financial dependents -- besides spouses, parents and children -- could sue if a breadwinner suffers a wrongful death. The measure would have benefited same-sex couples, but also other nontraditional households, such as one in which a grandmother relies on a grandson for financial support.

A standing-room-only crowd listened to nearly two hours of testimony before the committee, led by Republican Sen. Chris Buttars, voted 4-2 against sending the measure to the Senate floor. Only McCoy, who is openly gay, and fellow Salt Lake City Democrat Ross Romero voted for the bill.

Buttars, who was lobbied by a group of gay and bisexual activists at his West Jordan home earlier this month, didn't comment on McCoy's proposal during the meeting.

Opponents likened the bill to a "slippery slope" and a "dirty shirt" in a laundry basket of marital rights that could lead courts to justify legalizing same-sex marriage, similar to rulings in Massachusetts, California and Connecticut.

"SB32 will begin the process in Utah," Stan Rasmussen of The Sutherland Institute told the committee. "We simply do not share common ground in chipping away at the definition of marriage."

But McCoy argued that couldn't happen in Utah, where there is a constitutional amendment forbidding gay marriage. The constitution would "trump" the Utah Supreme Court's ability to change that policy, he noted.

"Amendment 3 actually serves as the bulwark against that slippery slope," McCoy said.

A gay Iraq War veteran, a gay father of four and a Draper mother of a lesbian daughter made impassioned pleas for the bill.

"I'm very invested in this country, which I love and put on a uniform for and was willing to give my life to defend," said Jeff Key, a former U.S. Marine. "If you put yourself on the opposing side of allowing the liberty and freedom that this country stands for, then you've put yourself on the wrong side of history."

After the committee meeting, McCoy concluded his colleagues' votes were "fear-based." Regardless, he plans to push the measure again in 2010.

Equality Utah executive director Mike Thompson stayed upbeat about the remaining three bills in the initiative.

"I still believe we are standing on common ground," he said. "The Tribune poll and our poll demonstrate that the average Utahn supports what we're doing. The Legislature just needs to catch up."

Three bills remain in the Common Ground Initiative:

In addition to asking the Governor's Office to extend employee health benefits to domestic partners of state workers, Equality Utah is pushing three bills in the 2009 legislative session:

Fair housing and employment » Make it illegal to fire an employee or evict a tenant for being gay or transgender. Sponsor: Rep. Christine Johnson, 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.