Utah Demos in disagreement over state constitutional amendment

Citing a pending conflict between “what’s fair” and “what might be right,” a Utah businessman is proposing an amendment to the Utah State Constitution that would prohibit religious organizations from being forced to “solemnize, officiate in, or recognize any particular marriage or religious rite of marriage in violation of its beliefs.”

Utah’s Amendment 3 currently defines marriage as a union solely between a man and a woman and precludes any other domestic union from having the same or “substantially equivalent legal effect.”

Jonathan Johnson, executive vice chair of Overstock.com, has already created and registered a political action committee, First Freedom PAC, and claims to have raised funds in the low six-figure range, although no disclosures have yet been filed. Johnson sees a day in the near future where religious freedom and equal protection butt heads.

“Equal protection seems to be unbounded, and speaking politically, it feels like what’s fair always wins over what might be right. But at the end of the day when equal protection and First Amendment free exercise of religious rights butt up against each other, then churches should be free to practice what they preach and believe,” said Johnson.

Johnson hopes to have the measure on the 2014 general election ballot in Utah, which would require a two-thirds approval in each chamber of the Legislature. Given predominant religious and political leanings of the Utah Legislature, it is unlikely that the measure will face any serious opposition.

Utah’s only openly gay legislator, Senator James Dabakis of Salt Lake, who is also the chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, seems supportive of the measure. “I don’t see anything wrong with that,” he stated.  “No sane person I know of wants to coerce or force any religion to perform any ceremony that they are not comfortable with.”

Other prominent Democrats agree. Former State Representative Brian Doughty added, “I am not sure it requires a constitutional amendment but I actually agree with the concept. As much as I disagree with organized religion, I don’t feel they should be made to perform or recognize any marriage they don’t agree with.”

Becky Moss, vice chair of the Utah Stonewall Democrats, disagrees. She feels the issue of religious protection is covered in the Bill of Rights and doesn’t need further clarification. According to Moss, “A pure act of love, a vow of marriage, does not rely on the bias of others, including those that dress their bigotry up in a cloak of perceived religious belief.”

If the measure passes the Legislature, it will then be placed on the ballot for the general election. A simple majority is all that is required to add the amendment to the state constitution. According to Johnson, the office running the campaign has received calls from five other states. He declined to identify them as it is “too early in the process.”

Utah’s Amendment 3 is currently being challenged in federal court. In Kitchen v. Herbert, three same-sex couples have argued that Utah’s Amendment 3 is discriminatory and violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.  There are currently efforts underway in several other states to remove laws that prohibit same-sex marriage, including Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Michigan, Illinois, New Jersey and North Carolina.

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