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Utah's marriage amendment hits unexpected bump

Utah's marriage amendment hits unexpected bump

The debate over constitutional restrictions on gay marriage has taken a peculiar turn in Utah, where voters in one of the country's most conservative states are being asked to consider more than morality when defining matrimony. Utah is one of at least nine states set to vote on such an amendment this election. Missouri voters passed that state's ban earlier this month. But in Utah the issue is complicated by a second part of the proposed amendment that critics fear could endanger the rights of even heterosexual couples. Some say the amendment's language would invalidate health benefits, inheritance rights, hospital visitation, medical decisions, and tax benefits for heterosexual couples who may live together but aren't traditionally married. In addition to defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman, the Utah amendment stipulates that no other union could be recognized as a marriage or given the same legal equivalent. Like other states considering such amendments, Utah already has a law on the books banning same-sex marriage. But lawmakers say it's essential to put the limiting language into the constitution to ensure that gay marriage won't ever be recognized in the state even if it's valid in states like Massachusetts. Of the five states with constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, only Nebraska's goes that far--and it's mired in legal disputes brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. The extra language has put Utah's predominantly Mormon and socially conservative voters in the potentially uncomfortable position of opposing an amendment they fundamentally support. Legal challenges are expected if the amendment passes. The bill's legislative sponsors, Sen. Chris Buttars and Rep. LaVar Christensen, argue that the second part is necessary to protect the first part against simple changes in nomenclature that would confer upon gay and lesbian couples the same rights as marriage, such as "civil unions." "Part 2 defends the language in part 1 by saying you can't create these names and use them as a battering ram to the back door to compromise marriage," Buttars said. "Are you telling me that the definition of good law is one that's never got an action against it?" Buttars said. "Especially when you deal with someone that is backed by the ACLU." Still, it has concerned even some conservatives who would typically support the amendment. The state's attorney general, Mark Shurtleff, has signed onto a joint statement with two candidates vying for his job denouncing the measure. Shurtleff is a Republican who opposes gay marriage and supports an amendment banning it. But he says this one is so poorly crafted that it could erode the rights of heterosexual couples in Utah. Critics say the amendment might affect a health care policy implemented last year extending medical benefits to domestic partners of University of Utah employees. Salt Lake City's study of its own domestic-partner benefits policy could also be scrapped. "There's so many questions it raises," said house minority leader Brent Goodfellow. "This is not, in my opinion, the process we should go through to change the constitution. If we're going to change it, it should be done over a period of time, and it should be studied."

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