11 November 2008

Pro-gay group seeks to "bridge that divide" in Utah

A pro-gay Utah group sees a silver lining in developments surround passage of California's Proposition 8, the measure that outlawed same-sex marriage.

The group, Equality Utah, held a press conference yesterday to announce that it would pursue a legislative agenda expanding certain protections for gays — and that it expects the politically dominant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to go along.

During the debate over Prop 8, which passed in part because church leaders strongly encouraged members to give of their time and means to support it, various church statements also said that the church doesn't oppose some legal protections sought by gays, such as fair housing and employment rights. So Equality Utah, proclaiming in a press release that "Equality Utah takes LDS Church at its word," has asked sympathetic members of the Legislature to introduce bills to secure those types of rights. Said Mike Thompson, executive director of Equality Utah:

While our position on marriage equality may differ from the LDS Church's position, I believe we share the desire to provide protections for gay and transgender Utahns — protections that do not compromise the Church's position on, and definition of, marriage. Proposition 8 has created a great divide. Now is the time to look for opportunities to bridge that divide and create the needed protections, rights and responsibilities for Utah's gay and transgender people. This will be Equality Utah's focus and we ask the LDS Church to support these efforts.

Equality Utah said that the agenda will include the following:

  • Extending health benefits to gay partners.
  • Adding "sexual orientation and gender identity" to the list of characteristics employers and landlords may not consider when making employment or housing decisions.

  • Probate rights.

  • Creation of a statewide domestic partner registry that would provide rights of inheritance, insurance and fair housing.

  • Repeal of a state constitutional provision, approved by voters that states that "no other domestic union; however, denominated, may be recognized as marriage or be given the same or substantially equivalent legal effect."

The church has had no official comment on the group's announcement.

The group's strategy raises at least two questions:

  • Will the church go along with certain types of pro-gay legislation? First, it should be noted that there's a difference between church statements that it wouldn't oppose various efforts and any suggestion that it would support such efforts. It's hard to imagine the church taking any kind of lead in such efforts. On the other hand, once it was made clear that a Salt Lake City plan to create a partnership registry wasn't designed to be a marriage substitute, the church didn't oppose it. It appears, to judge from its actions, that the church's interest is in supporting traditional marriage, not in trying to encourage oppression of any group in society. But in practice, many Mormon legislators take more conservative positions than the church leadership, which seldom gets involved in direct political action. So even if the church had no objection to a particular type of legislation, it is very likely that many legislators would.

  • Is Equality Utah being disingenuous? On the surface, the group appears to be limiting its legislation to what it says various church leaders have said they wouldn't oppose. But a closer look at its agenda suggests that in fact the group is seeking more than that. For example, no church leader has said the church has no objection to "gender identity" legislation (the church's unequivocal view is that a person's gender is an eternal characteristic, not something freely chosen). Certain provisions like that doom the legislation in its current form, and Equality Utah should know that. (Of course, asking for more than you can legitimately expect is part of the negotiation process.) And regardless of what church officials might say about it, it appears extremely unlikely that the marriage provision of the Utah Constitution is going to be changed soon, even if church leaders could be persuaded to go along.

Despite these caveats, statements by both the church and Equality Utah suggest some willingness to find common ground, to work for something that both sides might find acceptable. The group's statements are certainly a far cry from some of the bigoted comments and actions that have come from the fringes of the gay movement elsewhere in recent days.

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