Utah Considers Rights for Same-Sex Couples
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
So it may shock some Utahns to learn that a conservative state senator who voted against gay marriage plans to introduce legislation that would grant same-sex couples some of the same rights as husbands and wives.
Republican state Sen. Greg Bell introduced a bill when the Utah Legislature convened Jan. 17 that would allow adults who live together but are ineligible to marry in Utah such as a grandmother and her granddaughter, a pair of widows or a gay or lesbian couple to sign a contract legally establishing their relationship and granting such things as hospital visitation rights and survivor's rights to property.
"It's a good idea making that kind of legal relationship more attainable for more people, but I'm surprised the conservative majority would come forward with something acknowledging that people face theses issues right after spending a year beating up on this issue," said longtime civil rights lawyer Brian Barnard. Barnard has been unsuccessfully challenging laws still on the books in Utah that outlaw acts such as pre-marital sex, sodomy and polygamy.
Unlike Vermont's civil unions, which fall short of legalized gay marriage but grant same-sex couples the same state-level marriage rights as heterosexuals, Bell's proposal offers only rights that already can be obtained by any two adults through a power of attorney, will or a "joint tenancy" arrangement. The purpose, Bell said, is to simplify the legal process for these rights and to create a statewide registry of who's authorized to make these kinds of decisions. The system would be similar to "reciprocal beneficiary" registries adopted by Hawaii and Maine that provide limited marriage-benefits to same-sex couples.
Recently elected Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. supports Bell's proposal and first suggested such legislation during campaign debates over Amendment 3, the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage that was approved by 66 percent of Utahns.
Bell said he was troubled by accusations from gay rights supporters during the debate over Amendment 3 that amendment-backers were "mean-spirited" and attacking the homosexual lifestyle.
"We recognize these relationships are here, and we're not treating them as illegal," Bell said. "I want this to be a peace offering."
However, both Bell and the governor are careful to say that the "Mutual Dependence Benefits Contract" legislation is not intended as a gay rights bill because it does not target a specific class of people. However, they acknowledge that if the measure is cast as a gay rights bill instead of an economic dependency issue, it likely is doomed among conservative Utah lawmakers.
"It's not specific to gays or lesbians, but it is a bill I hope will send a message that we want to help with the practical problems that a segment of our society has to deal with," said Bell, who supported Amendment 3.
If passed, Bell's measure would make Utah an exception in what is expected to be a year of continued legislative backlash against gay marriage. Already, conservative lawmakers in fourteen states - Alabama, California, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin - have introduced bills this year to join 17 states that already have acted to amend their state constitutions to ban same-sex marriage. Only in California, Oregon and Rhode Island has legislation been introduced to expand marriage rights for gays and lesbians, but few expect these measures to pass.
Bell said that he's not trying to make a policy statement and hopes to keep a low profile on his legislation to avoid opening another contentious debate over same-sex marriage.
A Senate co-sponsor of Amendment 3, Sen. Chris Buttars (R), said that even though he considered Bell's legislation to be a "gay bill," he would consider supporting it because it did not give homosexuals new rights. Bell said he expects his bill to pass in the Senate if it has Buttars' support.
Passage in the state House faces opposition, however. State Rep. LaVar Christensen (R), the House co-sponsor of Amendment 3, says he will oppose the proposal because it is unnecessary and possibly would violate Amendment 3, which requires that "no other domestic union may be recognized as a marriage or given the same or substantially equal legal effect."
"If it ends up being a watered-down version of civil unions or domestic partnerships, that would be the antithesis of what was just done (by Amendement 3)," Christensen said.
A legal review of the measure conducted last month by the Utah Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel found that it had a low probability of being held unconstitutional.
Under the measure (Senate Bill 89), any two unmarried adults who are ineligible to marry each other could sign up to receive some of the same rights as married couples, such as hospital visitation or the ability to make end-of-life decisions about organ donation and the choice of burial or cremation. If the pair purchases a home together and one dies, the contract would grant "survivorship" to the remaining person, saving them taxes and eliminating the need for lawyers.
Even though they lost at the ballot box on same-sex marriage, gay rights advocates in Utah say Bell's legislation is a sign that the ensuing debate and their campaign for equal rights resonated with the public.
"People were very torn between keeping marriage the way it is and not taking away the rights of gay and lesbian couples they know in their lives," said Michael Mitchell, director of Equality Utah, a gay rights organization.
"We expect a lot of Utahns will call their legislators and ask them to vote for this," he said.