A bill that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman as well as prohibit recognition of same-sex marriages, common-law marriage, and civil unions performed in other states advanced Tuesday to the Utah senate. Members of the senate judiciary committee said that while the bill still has constitutionality problems, it would be better to debate them before the full senate and house of representatives. "It doesn't matter what words you have here," said Sen. Chris Buttars (R-West Jordan), the bill's sponsor. "You will still have the same discussion [on the floor]." The same committee considered the Marriage Defined bill last week but held it so Buttars could rewrite it.
In particular, lawmakers and lawyers were concerned that the bill would close the courts to same-sex or unmarried heterosexual couples with legitimate legal questions regarding child custody and care, wills, medical decisions, mortgages, or even car ownership. Scott McCoy, spokesman for Equality Utah, said that concern had only partly been addressed in Buttars's substitute bill. He also said the bill, which wouldn't recognize protective orders issued in other states, would conflict with Utah's Cohabitant Abuse Act, which does give authority to out-of-state protective orders.
Last week former Utah supreme court chief justice Michael Zimmerman and Brigham Young University law professors Lynn Wardle and Richard Wilkins reviewed the bill at the request of committee members. All agreed the Marriage Defined bill had constitutional problems.
On Tuesday, Zimmerman recommended a change to one section of the substitute bill that says the state won't recognize "any law creating any legal status, rights, benefits, or duties that are substantially equivalent" to those of a married couple. Zimmerman suggested deleting "rights, benefits, or duties" because the phrase applied to gays and heterosexuals and could have unintended consequences. Keeping the language in, he said, undermines cohabitants' common-law rights under state law.
Sen. Patrice Arent (D-Holladay) unsuccessfully offered Zimmerman's suggestions as a substitute bill. Sen. Greg Bell (R-Fruit Heights) said the bill presented fairness issues and that lawmakers would have to review the state's stalking and protective order statutes before taking final votes. Sen. David Gladwell (R-Ogden) said passing the bill would be preemptive so that the legislature could be ahead of the courts. "We will not recognize those [same-sex] unions," he said.