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Last Common Ground Bill Dies

Utah House Bill 160, the final bill in Equality Utah’s Common Ground Initiative died Feb. 18 in the House Judiciary Committee. None of the four bills, all targeted at getting more rights for Utah’s gay and transgender citizens, will make it onto the Senate or House floors for debate.


Sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, HB 160 sought to allow two unmarried adults living together — whether a gay or straight romantic couple or two unmarried adults with commingled assets — to apply for an Adult Joint Support Declaration that would give them inheritance rights and the right to make medical decisions for a partner if she or he is incapacitated.


In her opening remarks, Seelig mentioned that the bill was not just for gay couples, but for a number of other individuals, particularly those who need more protection in the current chilly economic climate.

“People are needing each other more and more to survive, to stay in their homes,” she said.  

As in the case of all other Equality Utah bills heard this session on Capitol Hill, HB 160 received extensive public testimony both in favor of and against its passage. Those who testified for it included Equality Utah’s Manager of Public Policy Will Carlson and out lesbian Kim Hackford-Peer (partner of QSaltLake columnist Ruth Hackford-Peer).

Clifford Rosky, an associate professor of family law at the University of Utah, spoke next, stating that without the protections of HB 160, a number of Utahns would continue to be passed over by the state’s inheritance laws.

Rosky also addressed an argument that Common Ground opponents have used throughout the session: that passing any of the proposed bills would be a “slippery slope” to gay marriage.

“I don’t use terms like this lightly, but that claim is false,” he said. Further, he explained that Utah’s situation was different from California’s. When California’s Supreme Court justices ruled that same-sex marriages could be performed, California had no constitutional ban on them. Utah, on the other hand, added Amendment 3, which defined marriage as the union between a man and a woman, to its constitution in 2004.

“Utah courts can’t ignore Amendment 3 or overrule it,” said Rosky.

Rosky also said that HB 160’s protections would also make it easier for qualifying Utahns to make medical decisions for their partners and inherit upon their partner’s death. Often, he said that such Utahns do not file necessary paperwork for these rights because doing so can be too complicated, and the lawyer’s fees needed to do so too prohibitive.

“It’s just a fact of life that most people don’t prepare for death or disability before it’s too late,” he said.
As in the case of all other Equality Utah bills heard this session on Capitol Hill, HB 160 received extensive public testimony both in favor of and against its passage. Those who testified for it included Equality Utah’s Manager of Public Policy Will Carlson and out lesbian Kim Hackford-Peer (partner of QSaltLake columnist Ruth Hackford-Peer).

Even though she had a legal document giving her hospital visitation priority, Hackford-Peer said she was still barred from the room when her partner underwent amniocentesis before the birth of their second child.
“I could not be there to hold her hand or to help her feel safe,” she said.

Stan Rassmussen of conservative and self-described pro-family think tank the Sutherland Institute, Gayle Ruzicka of Utah Eagle Forum and former Rep. LaVar Christensen testified against the bill.

Rassmussen argued that the necessary documents to create wills and advance health care directives were available for the public on the Utah Division of Aging and Adult Services’ Web site, and that HB 160 would only “confuse” Utahns if passed.

Sandra Rodrigues of America Forever, the anti-gay organization behind a controversial advertisement against the Common Ground Initiative in the Feb. 15 edition of the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret Morning News, also testified against the bill.

Rodrigues cautioned committee members that passing HB 160 would encourage children to embrace homosexuality, and thus eventually “vote down Amendment 3,” the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in Utah.

“If you pass this bill, you endorse homosexuality, and children will understand they can do this [be gay] when they grow,” she said.

The bill failed to go to the House floor for debate on a vote of 4-7, with Rep. Mark Wheatly, Rep. Brian King and openly lesbian Reps. Jackie Biskupski and Christine Johnson voting in its favor.

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