Common Ground Bill Would Amend Amendment 3

In the debates over gay rights that have raged on Capitol Hill since the 2004, the state’s constitutional amendment banning gay marriage has been at the forefront.

Because of its stipulation that “no other domestic union, however denominated, may be recognized as marriage or be given the same or substantially equivalent legal effect,” legislators have often used Amendment 3 (passed overwhelmingly by Utah voters in 2004) to insist that gay couples cannot have the legal recognition and most, or any of the rights and recognition granted to their heterosexual counterparts upon marriage.

This was the argument Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, used during the 2008 general session in his unsuccessful attempts to pass a bill illegalizing Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker’s domestic partner registry for city employees. The registry survived with only a name change — to “mutual commitments registry” — to keep it from running afoul of Amendment 3’s second part.

On the second day of this year’s session, the argument came up again against SB 32, Salt Lake City Democratic Sen. Scott McCoy’s bill, which sought to allow same-sex partners and others not related by blood or marriage to sue in case of a breadwinner’s death from negligence or medical malpractice. In her testimony against McCoy’s bill, Eagle Forum president Gayle Ruzicka, one of the leaders of the Yes on 3 Campaign, quoted Amendment 3’s second part, saying that McCoy’s bill, and one by Fruit Heights Republican Sen. Greg Bell in 2005, treated same-sex partners as spouses.

“There were attorneys, legislators, some of you in this room, that felt it [Bell’s bill was a violation and shouldn’t pass,” she told the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee Jan. 27.

McCoy’s bill died in committee on a 4-2 vote along Republican/Democrat lines.

Because of what they call these past “misinterpret[ations]” of Amendment 3’s second part, Equality Utah has made it clarifying the constitutional gay marriage ban part of its Common Ground Initiative, a set of four bills and one state policy change that seeks to secure more rights for gay and transgender Utahns in such areas as fair workplace and housing protections, insurance benefits and the creation of a domestic partner rights and responsibilities act.

“A government registry involving inheritance, housing, and insurance is nowhere near the legal equivalent of marriage. But the second part of Amendment 3 has been misinterpreted to prevent any recognition of gay and transgender couples in Utah,” said the local gay rights group on its Web site. Although their bill—now labeled House Joint Resolution 2— would repeal the prohibition on recognizing any relationship outside of marriage, it will leave the first half of the amendment—that which defines marriage as the union between one man and one woman—intact.

“It will not change Utah’s current definition of marriage, which is one man and one woman,” said Equality Utah.

However, HJR 2 does not propose to strike half of the amendment by legislative action alone. Rather, the resolution “directs the lieutenant governor” to put such an amendment to Amendment 3 before Utah voters as a proposal in the 2010 general election. It would thus be enacted only if a majority of voters approve it.

Since it is a house joint resolution, the amendment must be approved of by two-thirds of the members of both legislative houses before it can reach the people.

If the resolution passes and voters approve it, the amendment to Amendment 3 would take effect on Jan. 1, 2011.

Openly lesbian Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake City, is the resolution’s sponsor. At press time, a Senate sponsor had yet to be named.

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