This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2004, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Legal training trumped political self-interest when three candidates for attorney general issued a rare joint statement Friday against a proposed amendment to the Utah Constitution meant to block gay marriage.
Libertarian Andrew McCullough, Republican Mark Shurtleff and Democrat Greg Skordas say the potential ramifications of the ballot question forced them to issue the unusual news release. Although Shurtleff opposes gay marriage, McCullough does not and Skordas will not say where he stands on the fundamental question, the three candidates came together - on paper at least.
The statement said "because proposed Amendment 3 goes far beyond simply defining marriage, and would prove unnecessarily hurtful to many Utahns and their families, we oppose the amendment."
As written by Draper Republican Rep. LaVar Christensen for the 2004 Legislature, Amendment 3 has two parts. Like proposed constitutional changes on the ballot in at least 10 states this year, Utah's amendment would define marriage as the union between a man and a woman. A second clause prohibits recognition of common law marriages and civil unions: "No other domestic union, however denominated, may be recognized as a marriage or given the same or substantially equivalent effect."
The candidates say that second section would block lawmakers from extending basic partnership rights of hospital visitation, emergency medical decision-making and inheritance to thousands of unmarried Utah couples - gay and straight. They worry if voters approve the amendment, the change could throw some Utah employers' benefits packages into chaos. And they note the amendment was not reviewed by the state's Constitutional Revision Commission.
Since 1987, Utah has recognized so-called "common law" marriages for couples who have lived together and acted like husband and wife. The state is home to about 24,000 unmarried, heterosexual partners, according to 2000 census figures. Another 3,400 same-sex couples live in Utah.
Utah's amendment simply invites litigation on their behalf, the attorneys say. Gay rights groups challenged similar language in a 2000 Nebraska initiative on constitutional grounds. That case is pending in federal court.
Shurtleff says Utah's amendment is equally problematic. "It potentially deprives a bunch of Utahns - not just same-sex couples, but heterosexual common-law couples as well as their children - a set of basic, fundamental rights," he said. "It could forever deny to a group of citizens the right to approach its legislature to seek benefits and protections."
McCullough's campaign manager and law firm partner Rob Latham added: "This thing is so flawed, it's difficult to find an attorney practicing in Utah who thinks it's a good thing. It just creates a mess."
And Skordas says the amendment is unnecessary, given lawmakers' repeated efforts to pepper state statutes with traditional definitions of marriage.
"Anytime you have a constitutional amendment, you can count on decades of challenges and thousands and thousands of dollars trying to interpret what the amendment means," Skordas said. "We spend a lot of time and money trying to define the Constitution. This isn't an issue that needs to go down that road."
The amendment is unquestionably popular in conservative Utah. Last month, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement supporting amending both the U.S. Constitution and state constitutions to block gay marriage. A Salt Lake Tribune poll in May showed most Utahns would vote for such an amendment.
The amendment co-sponsor, Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, disagrees with all three attorneys' interpretation of the language. Buttars argues both parts of the amendment are necessary; the second paragraph reinforces the first. He believes Utahns still will vote for the amendment, despite the attorney general candidates' concerns.
"They're going to give the homosexual community some help causing confusion," Buttars said. "But Utahns still will vote in favor of the amendment."
But Don't Amend Alliance director Scott McCoy, whose group is leading the fight against the amendment, figures the candidates' agreement will neutralize a sensitive issue - at least in the race to be attorney general. McCoy talked to each candidate individually, discovered their common thinking and suggested the collective statement.
"This was meant to be a political wedge issue," he said. "By bringing all the candidates together, we're trying to neutralize this, making it a non-issue. It can neither hurt anyone nor help anyone when they all come out together in a statement."
While the joint statement with Skordas and McCullough provides all three candidates with political cover, Republican Shurtleff has the most to lose.
The attorney general acknowledged worrying about alienating his conservative base and lawmakers.
"If I were making a strictly political decision, I wouldn't say a word. The right wing is not that forgiving," Shurtleff said. "But once it passes, it's passed. I don't think we can go back. I just felt like I couldn't keep quiet on it."
Brigham Young University Political Science Department chairman Kelly Patterson said Shurtleff will have to explain his position to conservative voters. That explanation could be tricky.
"It's a complex legal argument that ultimately he'll have to make to voters. And the more you have to explain yourself to voters, the more likely you are to get into trouble," Patterson said.
At the same time, Patterson said, most Utah voters are staunchly conservative. They have no alternative to Shurtleff. "I doubt this issue will be the cutting point on which most voters make their decisions about Shurtleff and Skordas," he said.
Joint Statement Regarding Proposed Amendment No. 3
Utahns of good faith disagree over whether the state constitution should be amended to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. We respect each citizen's views on this complex issue.
However, because proposed Amendment 3 goes far beyond simply defining marriage, and would prove unnecessarily hurtful to many Utahns and their families, we oppose the amendment.
As written, Part Two of the proposed amendment would prohibit the Utah Legislature from ever extending even the most basic partnership rights to an unmarried couple, such as rights to hospital visitation, to emergency medical decision-making, and to inheritance. Moreover, Part Two's overly broad language could lead private employers in Utah to question the legality of their desire to extend certain benefits (such as health care) to unmarried partners of employees.
Furthermore, proposed constitutional amendments, such as Amendment 3, ought to be given the careful scrutiny of the Utah Constitutional Revision Commission.
For these reasons, we oppose adoption of Amendment 3.
- Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, Greg Skordas, Andrew McCullough