SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah lawmaker hopes residents can soon donate to the state's fight against gay marriage by checking a box on a tax form.
Republican Rep. Merrill Nelson of Grantsville has proposed a bill that would give residents the option of donating a portion of their income-tax refund to a "Marriage Defense Fund." The tax form already allows donations for nine other groups, including a homeless trust fund and one for organ transplants.
Nelson said the option is meant to placate proponents of same-sex marriage who complain the state is wasting money appealing a federal decision striking down Utah's gay marriage ban. It also allows supporters of "traditional marriage" a way to show their support for the cause, he said.
"This bill really is designed to appease both sides," said Nelson, who is an attorney for Kirton McConkie, which represents The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Utah will spend $300,000 to bring in a team of three outside attorneys to help defend the state's same-sex marriage ban before a federal appeals court. If Utah's case moves to the U.S. Supreme Court, the costs of hiring the team of private attorneys would be another $300,000, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said.
On Tuesday, hundreds of opponents and supporters of same-sex marriage held twin rallies at the Capitol. Reyes defended the costs at the rally put on by opponents of same-sex marriage, saying "I do not believe this is a losing case," to a standing ovation.
Brandie Balken, executive director of the gay rights group Equality Utah, criticized the bill, which has been given the title of "Marriage Defense Fund." She said it would create more division among Utah residents by suggesting the only marriages worth celebrating are opposite-sex unions.
"The title and the language itself is divisive," Balken said. "It implies that we are not all invested in the sanctity and importance of marriage."
The measure is the latest in the battle over the state's same-sex marriage ban approved by two-thirds of Utah voters in 2004 but overturned by a federal judge in late December. More than 1,000 gay and lesbian couples then married, until the U.S. Supreme Court granted the state an emergency stay Jan. 6, halting the weddings.
The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is reviewing the case, with a ruling expected in a few months.
Gov. Gary Herbert ordered state agencies to freeze recognition of same-sex marriages, while the federal government has said they'll recognize the marriages.
Nelson said he's not aware of any other state that allows people to check a box on a tax form to contribute to a state's legal fees. He said the idea came to him "like a flash" after hearing the complaints from both sides.
"It seems fair to both sides," he said. "It's not intended to be at all controversial."
If Nelson's measure passes, the tax-refund contributions would come on taxes filed in 2015.
The impact might be more ceremonial than practical. The state office of fiscal analysts estimates the Marriage Defense Fund would draw $60,000 over the next two years, based on the math of 2,000 people donating $15 each.
The nine causes that people already can contribute refund money to using their Utah state tax form include youth organizations, the homeless, wildlife, pets, organ transplants, schools and even the "canine body armor account."
Any cause get can get a space on the tax form if the Legislature approves it, Utah Tax Commission Charlie Roberts said. Funds are removed if they receive less than $30,000 for three consecutive years, he said.
The nine funds brought in $181,000 in 2013 with contributions from 10,300 people, state tax figures show. Contributions to these funds have steadily dwindled since Utah residents donated nearly $333,300 to them in 2008.
The two most popular causes in recent years were the homeless-assistance and organ-transplant funds. People donated $48,800 to help the homeless last year and $37,800 for organ transplants.
Nelson's fund might have a hard time getting through a legislative body where some leaders have suggested it makes sense to wait for the appeals court decision before weighing in on the issue.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart said as much Tuesday, but she also said she would stop short of blocking such bills from clearing her chamber.