How Gay Marriage is Playing at Utah’s Legislature

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The surprise legalization of same-sex marriage in Utah in December catapulted the state to the center of a national debate and dominated the local political landscape.

Questions about the implications of the ruling appeared poised to eclipse the early weeks of the Legislative session. On the second day of the session, hundreds of supporters and opponents of gay marriage swarmed the Capitol for dueling rallies. As for lawmakers, they are working on bills that address gay marriage, gay rights, religious freedoms and gender identity, among other related issues.

As lawmakers move into the second week of a 45-day session, here are five things to know about how gay marriage is playing at the Utah Legislature:

THE BAN

Utah’s voter-approved ban on gay marriage was overturned by a federal judge in late December. More than 1,000 gay couples rushed to wed until the U.S. Supreme Court granted Utah’s request to halt the weddings in January. State recognition of same-sex marriages is on hold, and Utah has appealed the decision on the ban to a federal appeals court. The legal saga will develop this spring and beyond, so any changes lawmakers seek to make to the law, which also bans civil unions, would have to wait until at least next year. Legislative leaders said this week that because the court challenge is still playing out, it may make sense for lawmakers to shelf any gay marriage-related bills this year.

FUNDING THE COURT FIGHT

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes is spending up to $300,000 on three outside attorneys who are helping with the appeal at the 10th Circuit Court. If Utah’s case works its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, that bill may double, Reyes’ spokeswoman Missy Larsen said. Reyes’s office is asking the Legislature to set aside money to pay that expense, but because the total bill is uncertain, lawmakers may not take up the issue until next year, Larsen said. If lawmakers decide not to set aside money, the attorney general’s office has money available, but it will be diverted from other resources. Republicans hold a supermajority at the Utah Legislature, so it’s unlikely Reyes will have a hard time convincing lawmakers to send his office extra funds.

RELIGIOUS PROTECTIONS

This year, a proposal to amend the state constitution and another bill both seek to protect religious rights when it comes to marriage. The two bills stipulate that clergy members or others associated with religious groups cannot be forced to solemnize a marriage that violates their beliefs. Rep. Jacob Anderegg, a Republican from Lehi, is sponsoring both of the measures. He has said if legislative leaders encourage holding off for a year or two on his proposals and others that will be impacted by the pending gay marriage ruling, he’ll abide by that.

TAXES

One proposal introduced this year would allow Utah residents to donate to the state’s legal defense of the gay marriage ban when filling out their tax form. The proposal, from Republican Rep. Merrill Nelson of Grantsville, would allow residents to check a box on the form to donate a portion of their income-tax refund. The money would go into a "Marriage Defense Fund." Nelson has said it would appease those who complain the state is wasting money in defending the law. He said it would also allow "traditional marriage" supporters a way to show their support. If Nelson’s measure passes, the tax-refund contribution would be available on taxes filed in 2015.

ANTI-DISCRIMINATION

A proposed statewide anti-discrimination ban is making its sixth appearance at the Legislature. The bill bars discrimination based on sexual identity or orientation in housing and employment. Last year, a Republican sponsored the measure for the first time. This year, Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, is trying again and urging lawmakers to consider it separately from the debate over gay marriage. He says it’s a longstanding and significant issue the state needs to address. Attention to his bill has been heightened since the gay marriage ruling and conservative groups are running television advertisements in opposition. Urquhart held a news conference Friday afternoon to urge his colleagues to consider and support the measure, and implored Utah residents to demand lawmakers hear the bill.


Greg Kabel

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