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Equality Utah's Common Ground Initiative -- a push for legal protections for gay and transgender Utahns -- has drawn hundreds of marchers to Capitol Hill, thousands of petition signatures and even broad-based support in statewide opinion polls.

The initiative also has ignited a backlash, led by defenders of "traditional marriage" who want to crush the effort.

Rather than "common ground," Gayle Ruzicka and the Constitutional Defense of Marriage Alliance are touting "common sense." And a Salt Lake City-based conservative think tank, The Sutherland Institute, wants Utahns to stand on "sacred ground" instead.

"The family is the central unit of society, and so our efforts in this regard are ultimately to protect the traditional family and protect marriage," said Sutherland spokesman Jeff Reynolds.

Next week, his group will kick off its Sacred Ground Initiative, a counteroffensive aimed at defeating the handful of gay-rights measures.

"The message [from opponents] is that our bills are an attack on marriage -- which is exactly what they're not," said Will Carlson, Equality Utah's public-policy manager. The proposed laws range from protecting someone from being fired for being gay to establishing a statewide domestic-partner registry.

The Common Ground Initiative was dealt a major setback Tuesday, when a Senate committee snuffed out a bill that would have allowed Utahns to sue if a same-sex partner suffers a wrongful death.

The overall initiative was crafted in response to LDS Church statements made after the passage of Proposition 8 -- the California ballot measure that banned gay marriage in the Golden State -- that the church does "not object" to rights for same-sex couples such as hospital visitation and probate rights and safeguards such as fair housing and employment laws.

A recent Salt Lake Tribune poll found 56 percent of Utahns support extending legal protections, short of marriage, to same-sex couples.

Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, and Reynolds both argue that granting any legal standing to same-sex couples -- or even recognizing sexual orientations as protected classes -- could precipitate a court battle to legalize gay marriage.

That's what happened in California, Ruzicka said, when the state's Supreme Court decided gay couples were entitled to wed because they already had many of the same rights as married, straight couples. Last fall, the court's decision to allow same-sex marriage was overturned when voters approved Prop 8.

"Common sense says that Utah's not going to make the same mistake," Ruzicka said.

She -- along with Republican Sen. Chris Buttars of West Jordan and former GOP Rep. LaVar Christensen of Draper -- formed the Constitutional Defense of Marriage Alliance to help pass Utah's Amendment 3, which defined marriage in 2004 as solely between a man and a woman. This alliance now is drafting a "common sense" rebuttal to the Common Ground campaign.

The fact that the Utah Constitution already prevents gay marriage makes California a false comparison, notes Carlson, who insists Equality Utah's initiative is not an end run to sue for gay marriage.

The Utah Supreme Court, he said, "can't overturn the Utah Constitution."

Sacred Ground kickoff

pWWhat » The Sutherland Institute presents its arguments against Equality Utah's Common Ground Initiative and rallies Utahns to oppose the gay-rights bills.

When » Feb. 5, 7-8:30 p.m.

Where » Thanksgiving Point Show Barn, 3003 N. Thanksgiving Way, Lehi.

R.S.V.P. required » Call 801-355-1272 or e-mail

Common Ground vs. Sacred Ground

What » A debate between Equality Utah and the Sutherland Institute over gay-rights legislation.

When » Feb. 19, 7 p.m., with a reception at 6:30 p.m.

Where » Sutherland Moot Courtroom, University of Utah law school, 332 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City.