Utah GOP slow to change on LGBT issues

Saturday , May 24, 2014 - 7:40 AM

OGDEN — For years, opposition to same-sex marriage helped Republicans gain votes as they tapped into anti-gay sentiment across the nation. But now it appears that tide has turned and Democrats are beginning to benefit from their party’s support of marriage equality and LGBT rights.

A recent Gallup poll showed that 55 percent of Americans support laws recognizing same-sex marriage as legal, a marked shift from a similar poll conducted in 1996 where only 27 percent favored recognizing same-sex marriages. That year, a Republican-dominated Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act prohibiting federal recognition of such unions. Last year, Section 3 of the act was ruled unconstitutional, opening the door for same-sex spouses to receive federal benefits.

In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage. Now, 18 more have followed suit, along with the District of Columbia.

“It’s a complex, moral issue for a lot of folks — we understand that,” said Turner Bitton, campaign manager for Donna McAleer, a Democrat who is challenging six-term incumbent Rep. Rob Bishop in Utah’s 1st Congressional District.

“But the vast majority of Utahns just don’t care as long as it doesn’t affect them or their families,” Bitton added. “It distinguishes Donna as a candidate that she’s been so vocal and supportive of the LGBT community.”

Attempts to reach Bishop’s spokesperson Friday were unsuccessful. However, he has long been a proponent of traditional marriage and voted against the successful repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2011. Last fall, Bishop joined more than 60 House members in support of legislation to protect the rights of people to act according to their religious beliefs that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Dubbed the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced the bill in the Senate where it has stalled since December.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said that he hates to see people play politics over the issue. He and his partner were among the first to wed in December, just hours after federal Judge Robert Shelby ruled that Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. However, Utah challenged that ruling and suspended benefits to same-sex spouses employed by the state.

“I’m the only senator whose spouse is denied healthcare on the state’s health plan,” Dabakis said Friday.

When it comes to LGBT non-discrimination in employment and housing, Utahns are already there, Dabakis said, citing a January  survey where 72 percent of residents supported legislation that would making such actions illegal.

During the last two legislative sessions, Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, unsuccessfully sponsored nondiscrimination bills that included sexual orientation and gender identity. Attempts to reach him Friday were unsuccessful.

Asked about the failure of SB 100 — Urquhart’s latest effort — to gain traction, Dabakis called it a clear case of a Legislature held captive by the extremist positions of the Republican caucus.

Dabakis is encouraged by changing attitudes in Utah regarding same-sex marriage.

“The momentum is on the side of justice and equality — particularly with the young,” Dabakis said.

Paul Mero, president of Utah’s conservative Sutherland Institute, views open support of gay rights and same-sex marriage as the kiss of death for most Republican candidates.

“But things will change with Count My Vote kicking in,” Mero said, referring to SB 54, the Legislature’s compromise that gave candidates a way to bypass the Republican-favored caucus/convention system, thus ending a powerful citizens initiative drive.

The Sutherland Institute opposed Count My Vote and continues to stand against same-sex marriage and what it terms “gay rights” — which it defines as “a collective plea for public acceptance of homosexual behavior.”

SB 54 takes effect Jan. 1, 2015, and at that point, Mero believes that Republican candidates will become more liberal “because they’re not required to face delegates in a caucus/convention system.”

Mero also disputes whether public opinion nationwide has truly shifted in favor of same-sex marriage and LGBT rights.

“I think that what we’re seeing is one zealous federal district court judge after another trying to be on the right side of history,” Mero said. “I’ve read their opinions and they’re almost like press releases for the Human Rights Campaign.”

The Human Rights Campaign describes itself as “the largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans,”

Karen McCreary, executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said that public acceptance for same-sex marriage and LGBT rights is growing “because more and more people are willing to reach out, be out, and also be open to one another.”

With companies that value diversity relocating to Utah, “many view nondiscrimination policies as a measure of just how open and creative the work space will be,” McCreary added.

Also, many Utahns now have either gay family members, neighbors or colleagues, giving the fight for equality a human face.

“It’s much more about people to people and fairness,” McCreary said.

Mat Wenzel, a 34-year-old high school English teacher, said that candidates of all stripes should not avoid talking about same-sex marriage and LGBT rights.

“I definitely sympathize with people from a religious background. I am gay and come from a religious background myself,” Wenzel said. “This is an important issue, and I don’t want to temper it just to be politically correct. This is something we need to fight for head on.”

Wenzel, an Ogden Democrat, is running for the state Senate District 18 seat against Republican Ann Millner, former president of Weber State University. Millner could not be reached Friday, but her website, annmillner.com gave the following statement: “When I visit with people from other states about Utah, I tell them about the family oriented culture in this state that makes it THE PLACE to live, work, learn, and play, We must continue to support our families and our children.”

Ogden Libertarian Dwight Steffner also seeks the Senate District 18 seat.

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.

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