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Parental rights bill is effectively shelved

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Lawmakers have decided there's no need for a controversial parental rights bill in light of a recent Utah Supreme Court decision on the issue.

The measure would have prevented the use of the common law doctrine "in loco parentis" in cases like the one the high court ruled on last week, where a lower court had used the doctrine to grant visitation rights of a young girl to the former lesbian partner of the girl's biological mother.

SB248, sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, would make clear that in loco parentis cannot be used against the wishes of a legal parent. But since the court ruling effectively does that, saying that an award of parental rights can be instituted or terminated at any time by legal parents, Bramble said Tuesday that the bill is not necessary.

"At this point it looks like we should allow the Supreme Court opinion to stand," the Provo Republican said.

The state Senate voted to send SB248 back to the Senate Rules Committee, where it will likely die for this legislative session. The bill is similar to one passed by the Legislature last year, sponsored by former state Rep. LaVar Christensen. That bill was vetoed by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. amid concerns about the measure's unintended consequences on grandparents and stepparents.

Lawmakers on Tuesday praised the Supreme Court for reaffirming in loco parentis as a temporary delegation of parental authority.

"They came down in a very reasoned but strict construction of what in loco parentis has always been," said Sen. Greg Bell, R-Farmington. "This is a marvelous decision because it says the parent and the parent alone can establish and also terminate the in loco parentis relationship."

Others, however, have expressed concern about the effect of the ruling on nontraditional relationships, such as those at issue in the case. Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, said existing state law affords protection to traditional families faced with hardships, such as divorce, death or disability. Nontraditional families, he said, do not have the same legal protections.

"So when bad things happen to our families, we are left grasping at any buoy or life raft to try to help us through those situations," said McCoy, who is gay.

Shelving SB248 for now is wise, he said, but the issue should be studied over the interim period to determine how to deal with those situations, where children are often involved and have established parental relationships.

Bell agreed. "We have emerging relationships that might be well to be discussed in the next interim or two. (But) I shudder to undertake this bill this time."

E-mail: awelling@desnews.com