All gay-rights bills fall short, but neither side is giving up

Common Ground » Final defeated measure would have provided inheritance and medical rights.
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Common Ground has been buried for now. But gay-rights advocates vow their campaign will spring back next year and the year after that -- if that's what it takes.

Trouble for them is, opponents are pledging the same thing.

"They keep coming back," said conservative Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka. "And we keep coming back to oppose them."

On Wednesday, the Legislature dealt its final blow to this year's Common Ground Initiative, possibly the most expansive push for legal protections for gay and transgender Utahns in state history. The effort had the backing of popular Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., positive signals from the LDS Church, and, on most issues, the support of public opinion, according to a Salt Lake Tribune poll.

Even so, a House committee Wednesday rejected Rep. Jennifer Seelig's HB160, which would have offered two, unmarried cohabiting adults -- including same-sex couples -- safeguards of inheritance rights and medical-decision making for one another.

Foes argued gay couples and other unmarried pairs already can secure those rights through wills and other contracts.

HB160 "is unnecessary," testified Stan Rasmussen, public-affairs manager for the conservative Sutherland Institute. "Further, it creates confusion regarding current law governing inheritance and medical-decision making."

But Salt Lake City resident Kim Hackford-Peer warned that having all the right documents in place wasn't enough to guarantee that she could be in the room when her partner, Ruth Hackford-Peer, was having an amniocentesis during her second pregnancy.

"What if the circumstances were different? … What if I was not allowed my last opportunity to talk to her?" Kim Hackford-Peer asked. "When even one person is hurt by a rule or a law that could be changed to make sure that nobody is hurt, I believe, we, as a community, have an obligation to make that change."

She also noted not everyone can afford to hire an attorney to draft a will or a health-care directive.

Still, the GOP-led House Judiciary Committee voted 9-4 along party lines against the measure.

Despite Wednesday's defeat, the Common Ground Initiative is far from dead, said Mike Thompson, executive director of Equality Utah, the advocacy group leading the charge. Democratic lawmakers have promised to bring back their bills, with some variations, next year.

And activists scored some mini-victories. All the bills, save for one pulled by its sponsor, at least reached committee hearings.

"The majority of Utahns support these basic protections," Thompson said. "We are not giving up on these issues. The Common Ground Initiative is not a 2009 legislative agenda."

Another failed gay-rights bill, HB288, was not included in the initiative. It would have allowed unmarried couples, including gay and lesbian pairs, to adopt and foster children in Utah.

Equality Utah crafted the Common Ground Initiative in response to statements made by the LDS Church after passage of California's Proposition 8. Even though it supported the ballot measure, which banned same-sex marriage in the Golden State, the church said 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."

Despite those comments, the LDS Church did not endorse Equality Utah's initiative.

Common Ground's failed bills

During the 2009 legislative session, Equality Utah and other gay-rights advocates hoped to pass four bills that made up the Common Ground Initiative:

Fair housing and employment » Died in a House committee, it would have made it illegal to fire an employee or evict a tenant for being gay or transgender. Sponsor: Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City.

Probate rights » Died in a Senate committee, it would have allowed an unmarried partner or other financially dependent relative to sue in the event of a wrongful death. Sponsor: Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City.

Adult joint-support declaration » Died in a House committee, it would have offered two cohabiting adults, including same-sex couples, rights of inheritance and medical-decision making. Sponsor: Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City.

Repeal a portion of Amendment 3 » Dropped by its sponsor, it would have sought voter approval to repeal Utah's constitutional ban on civil unions. Sponsor: Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake City.