'Sacred Ground' vs. 'Common Ground': 600 meet over gay-rights concerns, two-dozen protest

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Two dozen gay-rights advocates rallied outside of Thanksgiving Point on Thursday night as more than 600 Utahns gathered inside to answer what they saw as a "challenge to family and freedom."

Conservative think tank The Sutherland Institute formally launched its Sacred Ground Initiative to counter Equality Utah's push for "common ground," a legislative effort that would offer some basic protections to same-sex couples and make it illegal to fire or evict someone for being gay or transgender.

The Common Ground Initiative, declared former Rep. LaVar Christensen, the author of Utah's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, Amendment 3, "is actually very uncommon."

"It would be groundbreaking and lead to what we just witnessed in California," he told the crowd, referring to California Supreme Court's ruling legalizing gay marriage, which later was overturned when voters approved Proposition 8.

Gay-rights activist Jacob Whipple used Facebook to encourage supporters of the Common Ground Initiative to "infiltrate" the meeting to listen and possibly offer a contrary view to attendees. Despite sending an RSVP to Sutherland, many gay-rights backers were turned away at the door. Those who did get in didn't disrupt the 90-minute program.

"I was surprised that [Sutherland's speakers] didn't mention even one of the Common Ground bills," said gay-rights activist Eric Ethington, noting the focus of the evening was on marriage. Ethington told guests seated near him that it's legal to fire someone in Utah for being gay.

"Every single person around me said, 'That's not right,'" Ethington said. The Sacred Ground proponents "want to scare people with what the future might possibly hold rather than focus on what these bills are now."

Sutherland Institute benefactor Lauralyn Swim encouraged the audience to get involved during the legislative session to defeat the gay-rights push.

"Some claim that standing up for the enduring, even sacred, definitions of marriage and family is showing hate for those who disagree," she said. "They are wrong. Defending marriage and family is an act of love for our children and our children's children."