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Equality Utah, Sutherland Debate Gay Rights

Local gay rights group Equality Utah and the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank, squared off in a public debate on gay marriage that touched upon California’s Proposition 8, gay marriage, whether homosexuality and gender identity are choices or innate, and Equality Utah’s Common Ground Initiative, four failed legislative bills targeted at giving more rights to gay and transgender Utahns.


The Sutherland Institute invited Equality Utah’s staff to debate in January, which Equality Utah accepted. The debate itself took place on the night of Feb. 19 in the University of Utah Law School’s Sutherland Moot Court Room, in front of a full house.

Team Equality consisted of Equality Utah Manager of Public Policy Will Carlson, University of Utah law professor Clifford Rosky, therapist Lee Beckstead and openly gay Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City.

“Does disagreeing on one ting mean no agreeing on anything?” asked Carlson in his opening remarks. He went on to discuss the importance of the protections sought by the Common Ground Initiative, including inheritance rights, the ability to sue in cases of a partner’s wrongful death, and protections from housing and job discrimination for gay and transgender people.

He objected as well to the Sutherland Institute’s argument that passing these and other protections would lead to gay marriage in Utah. Noting that Utah’s constitution forbids gay marriage, Carlson said: “This slippery slope argument is false, and it belongs on a playground. The truth is bills in the common ground initiative are not about special rights, but about protecting each other.”

Team Sutherland consisted of Sutherland Institute president Paul Mero, former Utah representative LaVar Christensen, teacher Shirley Cox and Bill Duncan, director of the institute’s Center for Family and Society.

In speaking for his team, Mero thanked Equality Utah for accepting the invitation to debate. Although he said his opening remarks would be “intentionally provocative” in order to “push this debate,” he added that he and the Sutherland Institute respected Equality Utah.

“But the fact remains, we don’t just disagree with the Common Ground Initiative, but every reason behind it,” he said.

Mero called sexual orientation, the idea of gender identities other than cisgender male and female, and the belief that families are based on love, not “intergenerational ties” “illusions.” He also criticized Equality Utah for conducting an “unprofessional poll” to determine that the majority of Utahns support protections for gay and transgender people.

“Your initiative feeds on the notion that you have these magical rights to do whatever you want,” he said.

In alternating rebuttals and question and answer periods, the two sides discussed arguments for and against the initiative that have been widely discussed during this legislative session. They included the link between economic stability and stable families (of all varieties); studies on the effectiveness of gay parents; whether homosexual sex is a health risk; Biblical prohibitions against gay sex; and whether or not the granting similar rights to gay and transgender people had lead to gay marriage in California.

In Equality Utah’s closing arguments, McCoy said all of the Sutherland Institute’s objections still did not address a very real problem: the fact that gay and transgender people have no legal recourse if they are kicked out of their homes, no right to sue if a partner dies from medical malpractice, and no automatic right to inherit a partner’s property.

“We have seen nothing more than allegations that we are living in a fantasy world, but I would argue that you are,” said McCoy, who sponsored one of the Common Ground Initiative bills. “What is an illusion as we have learned tonight is that it’s an illusion that passing the Common Ground bills would lead to gay marriage in Utah.”

“What we never hear is an intelligent, honest and compelling [answer] on where they’d draw the line in extending these rights to other people,” Mero said in his closing remarks. He asked if Equality Utah would be comfortable extending legal protections to polygamist families, or a brother and sister in a sexual relationship who had promised not to reproduce.

Both teams then took questions from the audience, which expanded on points covered in the debate.

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