Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. spent much of the day Tuesday explaining his support for civil unions, while critics — especially lawmakers — fumed he'd gone too far.
"I'm looking at it in its broadest sense … these are more the contractual rights I'm referring to," the governor told the Deseret News during one of a number of media interviews. "It's not like we're pushing a major initiative here."
Huntsman said his spokeswoman, Lisa Roskelley, was responding to a reporter's question when she said he supported civil unions as well as the "Common Ground" legislative initiative intended to extend the benefits of marriage to gay and other nontraditional couples.
"I'm a firm believer in the traditional construct of marriage, a man and a woman," the governor said. "But I also think that we can go a greater distance in enhancing equal rights for others in nontraditional relationships."
Huntsman said those relationships aren't limited to gay couples, but any two people living together in a financially dependent relationship. Given the troubled economy, he said, "this is probably a good time to be discussing some of these issues."
It is also a good time in light of the controversy surrounding Proposition 8 in California, the recently approved anti-gay marriage amendment supported by members of the LDS Church. "My desire, more than anything else, is to help heal the divided community," the governor said.
Regardless of what happens to the bills that are part of the Common Ground initiative, Huntsman said it's "important to have a communitywide discussion on these issues in a way that shows temperance and respect and an enhanced understanding."
The initiative does not appear to be going anywhere this session. Two bills — one extending hospital visitation and other rights to same-sex couples and the other making it illegal for landlords and employers to discriminate based on sexual orientation — are stuck in the House Rules Committee.
A resolution attempting to change Amendment 3 to the Utah Constitution, which bans gay marriage, has been abandoned by its sponsor. And a bill that would have given same-sex couples legal standing in wrongful-death suits, has already been shot down in committee.
The sponsor of that bill, the Legislature's only openly gay senator, Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, said he doesn't know "if the governor's statements politicized the issue in a way that's helpful or hurtful."
McCoy said the focus on civil unions may distract people from paying attention to what the initiative would provide.
"We've never pushed for or asked for full marriage equality or civil unions," McCoy said. "We've been very careful to say we have a pretty good idea of what people will entertain."
Just what impact the governor's support of an unpopular position among his fellow Republicans may have on his other legislative initiatives, including liquor reform, remains to be seen.
"We're all big boys and girls," Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse, said. "If there's legislation out there, whether the governor put it forward or other representatives or senators, it'll be voted up or down based on its merits."
Senate Republicans were clearly unhappy with the governor's pronouncement he supported civil unions. "It's gay marriage-lite, and I'm opposed to that," said Senate assistant majority whip Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights. "We're not going to go there."
In 2005, Bell carried legislation sought by Huntsman to allow for benefits to be extended to non-married couples. "There is a wide difference between what that bill sought and civil unions," Bell said. "I'm against that even though I've been very aggressive in trying to help gay and lesbian couples get rights."
Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka, who has warned the Common Ground initiative could lead to gay marriage, said Huntsman has turned against his own party and misled voters who re-elected him to a second term last November.
"It's very dishonest," Ruzicka said. "All I can say to the governor is, 'Shame on you' … Legislators this time are going to have trouble trusting him in the future when he betrayed them like this."
The group behind the Common Ground initiative, Equality Utah, called the governor's support welcome but not surprising. "Gov. Huntsman has been so supportive and he just truly, I think, gets it," said Mike Thompson, Equality Utah's executive director.
Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights group, praised Huntsman's support as "hopeful and inspiring news."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement saying that while the church "has not taken a specific position on the Common Ground initiative, we have tried to clearly define the principles regarding the importance of marriage and its attending issues."
The LDS Church statement said that information can be found at newsroom.lds.org.
Contributing: Aaron Falk. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org