Despite being accused of tacitly endorsing gay marriage, a legislative committee Wednesday approved a proposal that would allow financial dependents of someone killed in an accident to sue for damages.
Committee members were warned during public testimony that if the full Legislature were to approve the measure when it convenes in January, Utah would not only be extending the right to sue to persons other than the victim's spouse, parents or children. The lawmakers would also, in effect, stand in violation of the state constitution's one-man, one-woman definition of marriage.
Opponents said that any initiative that addresses partnerships and partner rights runs counter to the Republican-dominated Legislature.
Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative Eagle Forum, said Utah is on the same slippery slope that resulted in the California Supreme Court overturning a public referendum against gay marriage, a decision she said was forced by lawmakers approving laws similar to the one being considered for Utah. It took a ballot measure, the recently passed Proposition 8 — which was actively and financially supported by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at the urging of church leaders — to void that judicial decision.
A majority of the committee members disagreed, saying that the proposal applies to many family members, not just gay partners. Endorsing a law that allows those financially dependent family members to recover damages should not be viewed as an endorsement of any particular lifestyle, they said.
Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, repeatedly asked those testifying to focus their comments to the content of the bill and summed up his feelings prior to the vote by saying, "I can look at my constituents who are not in favor of gay marriage (and tell them) that this does nothing to undermine traditional marriage."
At the same time, it is one of six measures bundled together as the Common Ground Initiative by the gay-rights advocacy group Equality Utah. In packaging the initiative, the group is hoping to find measures to allow some of the legal benefits of marriage, such as health benefits, for gay couples who cannot be legally married. For support, the group points to statements made by LDS Church officials, as well as statements from the church, that indicate the church does not object to civil rights for gay couples.
Under the proposal sponsored by Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, those allowed to sue would have to be the sole heir in a victim's will or be able to prove that the victim had been a live-in partner, had been designated as the beneficiary of retirement benefits, covered under the same insurance policy and had shared assets and debts.
If a suit results in financial damages, the proposed bill stipulates that the award go first to the victim's minor children. That clause causes concern for some committee members who said they saw no reason to change the law from its original design 50 years ago that bestowed benefits to traditional families and encouraged marriage.
"We can either leave things the way they were in the '50s or we can recognize the fact that today there are many different types of household settings that are as equally impacted by the unexpected death of a loved one," McCoy said.
Equality Utah's public policy director, Will Carlson, said the proposal is not subversive to traditional concepts of marriage.
"This is about common ground. This is about taking care of people," Carlson said. "There's been a lot of talk about Utah being a 'hate state.' I think this shows while Utah has a clear position on marriage, (Utahns) want to take care of each other."