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2009 Legislative Session Wrap-Up

The 2009 Legislative Session contained several disappointments for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Utahns, as well as a few surprising victories. QSaltLake has rounded up the highlights.

Beginnings

Shortly after the passage of California’s Proposition 8, which re-banned gay marriage in the state, local gay rights group Equality Utah announced its Common Ground Initiative, a series of four bills and one policy change aimed at securing more rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Utahns. The initiative was a response to a now-famous statement made by the LDS Church in Prop. 8’s wake. In this statement, church leaders maintained that they were not anti-gay and did not object to “rights for same-sex couples regarding hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights, or probate rights.” Further, on Nov. 5, church Elder L. Whitney Clayton also stated that the LDS Church did does not oppose “civil unions or domestic partnerships.”

In response to these two statements, Equality Utah announced that it would run bills aimed at securing employment and housing nondiscrimination protections for gay and transgender workers and tenants; the right for same-sex partners to sue in cases of their partner’s death due to medical malpractice or negligence; the creation of adult joint declarations to give unmarried couples inheritance and medical decision rights; and a bill that would remove the most controversial part of Utah’s gay marriage ban that forbids legal recognition of civil unions.

The LDS Church had no comment on the bills throughout the session.

Wrongful Death Amendments

The first Common Ground bill appeared before a legislative committee was Sen. Scott McCoy’s Wrongful Death Amendments bill. Labeled SB 32, the legislation sought to extend the right to sue for wrongful death to survivors who have financial ties to a deceased person, but who are not related to him or her by blood, adoption or marriage. If passed, SB 32 would have protected unmarried partners regardless of their sexual orientation.

In arguing for his bill, the Salt Lake Democrat said that SB 32 was very rigidly defined, allowing partners the right to sue only if they had no surviving spouse, children or parents; if survivors elected not to bring a wrongful death action; or if survivors allowed the partner to join with them in a suit. He also noted that the bill did not violate Utah’s constitutional gay marriage bay by conferring marital status onto a non-marital relationship.

Opponents of the bill, however, including United Families Utah director Laura Bunker, Utah Eagle Forum member Gayle Ruzicka, attorney Frank Myler and Sutherland Institute member Stan Rasmussen argued that passing the bill would be the first step to having the courts legalize gay marriage in Utah.
McCoy objected that Utah’s constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage (which voters passed in 2004) would prevent this from happening. Still, his bill failed on a vote of 4-2 in the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee.

Amendment 3

The second Common Ground Bill was withdrawn by its sponsor before it reached a House committee for discussion.

Openly lesbian Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake City, pulled House Joint Resolution 2, Joint Resolution to Amend the Marriage Provision of the Utah Constitution in order to give the other, less controversial bills in the Common Ground Initiative a chance at passing. Her resolution sought to strike the second part of Utah’s constitutional ban on gay marriages, which prohibits the legal recognition of any domestic union other than a legal marriage between a man and a woman.

“Maybe pulling my bill will give some people an opportunity to really have an open mind,” Biskupski told The Salt Lake Tribune.  

For the bill to have taken effect, two-thirds of both the Utah House and Senate would have had to approve it. The measure would then have gone before Utah voters, who would have had to approve it by a majority vote.

Early polling on the bill showed that a majority of Utahns did not favor it.

Fair Housing and Workplaces

For the second consecutive year, openly lesbian Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City, ran a bill aimed at extending workplace antidiscrimination laws to protect gay and transgender Utahns from being fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In light of the LDS Church’s apparent support for housing nondiscrimination, Johnson amended the 2009 incarnation of her bill to offer similar protections to tenants, who can be legally evicted because of they are gay or transgender.

HB 267 Antidiscrimination Act Amendments went before the House Business and Labor Standing Committee on Feb. 17. In her opening remarks, Johnson mentioned that the Utah Labor Commission receives about three calls each month from gay and transgender workers who have been fired and who want to know what recourse they have under Utah law.

“This kind of discrimination is happening in Utah,” she told the committee. “We don’t want to acknowledge it, we want to turn a blind eye … We think if we ignore it, it’ll go away.”

A number of Utahns, gay and straight, testified in favor of the bill, including small business owner Sue Rice, Rev. Shawn Dennison of the South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society and Brian Horne, a gay man who was fired in early 2008 after asking his employer if his insurance benefits would cover his partner.

Once again, Gayle Ruzicka, former Rep. LaVar Christensen, Sutherland Institute president Paul Mero and others argued that passing the bill would threaten the religious rights of employers who do not want to work with gay or transgender people, and that Johnson’s bill was a precursor to legalizing gay marriage in the state.

The bill failed on a vote of 5 – 8, but a vote that was nevertheless not along party lines. Rep. C. Brent Wallis, R-Weber County, supported the measure. He was the only Republican to support any of the Common Ground Bills this session.

Gay Adoption

At the same time as Johnson’s hearing, a bill by Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City that sought to allow gay couples to adopt children was heard by the House Health and Human Services Committee.

Although not part of the Common Ground Initiative, Chavez-Houck’s HB 288 Adoption Amendments was supported by Equality Utah. The bill, which did not make it into a committee during the 2008 session, sought to overturn a 2000 ban on unmarried, cohabitating partners adopting children. Further, the bill would have given preferential treatment to married couples and allowed gay couples to adopt only if the child’s biological parent requested or if the child was already in state custody.

Currently, only legally married couples and single adults may adopt.

Proponents of the bill argued that the bill would allow more children to be placed in loving, stable homes. Opponents, such as family law attorney Frank Mylar, however, said that the bill would do a disservice to children, because they do better when raised by married parents.

The committee voted 5-1 to table the bill for the session. Only Rep. Phil Riesen, D-Holladay, voted in its favor.

Adult Joint Support Declaration

The last of the Common Ground bills, HB 160 Adult Joint Support Declaration, went before the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 18.

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

In her opening remarks, Seelig stressed that the bill was important for people who do not fit the traditional definition of family, particularly in trying economic times. However, opponents of the bill, including Gayle Ruzicka, LaVar Christensen and Stan Rasmussen testified that HB 160 was unnecessary, because all Utah adults can make wills and advance health care directives, which confer the same rights. Supporters such as Kim Hackford-Peer (partner of QSaltLake columnist Ruth Hackford-Peer), however, testified that such documents could be ignored by misinformed or malicious people, including hospital staff who sometimes deny unmarried partners from visiting each other in the hospital.

The bill failed to make it to the House floor for a debate on a vote of 4-7.

Adult Designee Benefits

Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson succeeded in her third attempt to pass an adult designee benefits program for county employees on Feb. 17. In a 6-3 vote (five Democrat, one Republican), the Democratic majority council extended health, dental and life insurance benefits to an adult who shares commingled assets with an employee—whether a family member, roommate or domestic partner. The plan is identical to one implemented for Salt Lake City employees in 2006.

Other Bills

A number of other bills, some gay-friendly, some not, also appeared during the session. The first of these was HB 225 Driver License Amendments by Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman. The bill sought to require a transgender person to undergo sex reassignment surgery before being able to change the sex designation on his or her driver license. Wimmer abandoned the bill early in the session.

Two other bills that would have been helpful to gay and transgender Utahns died later in the session. The first, Seelig’s HB 17 Expedited Partner Therapy Treatment would have allowed a patient’s unmarried sexual partner to pick up the patient’s prescription for medication to treat certain STDs. The second, Rep. Lynn Hemingway’s HB 189 Instruction in Health Amendments would have given Utah public school students of all orientations information about contraceptive and safer sex devices.

Gay Friends and Foes

Support for the Common Ground Initiative came from several non-gay sources this session, including various newspapers, straight allies, and even the governor himself.

On Feb. 9, Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. stated that he not only supported the initiative, but actual civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. His statements drew praise from the gay community — including a large thank you sponsored by Equality Utah that appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News. However, many Utahns, including conservative think tank the Sutherland Institute, criticized the governor for what they saw as his attempt to curry favor with gays.

In response to Huntsman’s statement, the organization America Forever ran a full page, color ad in both of Salt Lake City’s daily papers criticizing Huntsman and Equality Utah. The inflammatory ad by the former immigrants’ rights group accused gays of “”Consciencely [sic] … using the LDS church’s statements as a shield to numb the public conscience of their religious duty and rights.” The ad triggered several calls of support to Equality Utah (many from straight Mormons). Several legislators who also opposed the initiative also criticized the ad’s rhetoric.

Sen. Chris Buttars’, however, got the most local and national attention for his anti-gay remarks. On Feb. 18 documentary filmmaker Reed Cowan released footage of an interview with Buttars in which the West Jordan Republican called gays a threat to America and the “meanest buggers” he knew and accused them of engaging in “pig-sex.”

Buttars’ remarks made headlines across the nation. In a press conference, Senate president Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said that Buttars had been removed from the Senate Judicial Committee because he violated an agreement with Republicans that he would not speak publicly on gays anymore. Waddoups also drew criticism for saying that he and other Republicans agreed with a few of Buttars’ statements. He declined, however, to say which ones.

Although several gays, including activist Jacob Whipple, called for Buttars’ resignation, the senator wrote on the Utah senate majority’s unofficial blog that he had no intention of resigning.

Looking to the Future

Although the Common Ground Bills failed this session, Equality Utah said that they are not finished with the initiative. In the months leading up to the 2010 legislative session Mike Thompson, Equality Utah’s Executive Director, said the group will work on educating Utahns about the initiative, supporting fair-minded candidates running for office, and work to pass laws protecting gay and transgender people in city and county governments across the state. Equality Utah has also asked gay and transgender Utahns and their straight allies to talk about the initiative with five people and five businesses who do not currently support it.

On Feb. 26, the owners of a triumvirate of businesses, Golden Braid Books, Faustina Restaurant and Café Oasis publicly announced that they support the Common Ground Initiative. By the end of the session, 31 businesses had pledged their support.

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