A bill that would create a contract to provide some health and property-related benefits to those who can't legally marry was given preliminary approval in the Senate Friday.

However, some of those who voted 15-10 to move the "Mutual Dependence Benefits Contract" to a final Senate vote expressed concern about the measure.

Sen. President John Valentine, R-Orem, said the debate should continue but said he has "serious concerns" about the mechanics.

The bill would give those who cannot marry the ability to obtain one contract, registered with the state Department of Health, to visit a partner in the hospital, make informed consent medical decisions, dispose of a dead partner's remains and make organ donation decisions, and to have joint tenancy rights to property acquired while under the contract.

Those who spoke against the bill said it looked like an effort to circumvent Amendment 3, which voters approved in November. The amendment banned in Utah's constitution same-sex marriage and any other "domestic union" that is substantially similar to marriage.

Armed with a legal opinion signed by five of the attorneys who supported Amendment 3, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, said his bill complies with the state's marriage law.

"I fought for Amendment 3," Bell said. "I believe in it, I don't want to detract from it. (SB89) applies to all people neutrally, irrespective of their sexual relationship.

"We have looked at some things, non-sexually based that have nothing to do with marriage . . . but relate to how people live," Bell said.

Examples of people who might benefit from the provisions are roommates who are not involved in a relationship or family members who share a home. But some legislators fear the primary benefit would be to same-sex couples who are denied marriage under Amendment 3 provisions.

Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, who co-sponsored Amendment 3, said he couldn't support the measure.

"The first step in moving people toward the real goal is by perception," he said. "I believe the public sees this as a gay rights issue."

Also questioning the motives behind the bill were Sens. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, and Bill Hickman, R-St. George.

Bramble said the bill was unnecessary because any two citizens can already enter into these contracts individually.

"Who is it we are creating this new body of law for?" he said. "Is it the two roommates? I don't think so."

Bell defended his bill, saying that while those benefits could be obtained individually, it "takes sophistication, it takes expense."

Of concerns that the bill would initiate a slippery slope to gay marriage, Bell said: "I will be the first to kick myself to hell if I have started that process."

Monte Stewart and Bill Duncan of the Marriage Law Foundation and Richard Wilkins, Lynn Wardle and Camille Williams of Brigham Young University signed the letter stating that SB89 "complies with Amendment 3," even though same-sex couples are among those who would qualify for the benefits.

" . . . the accommodation created by SB89 does not walk, talk and act like a marriage," the statement says. "Even all the benefits available by the contract, when taken together, fall short of that large 'laundry basket' of marital rights and benefits that must be present . . . before the accommodation runs afoul of Amendment 3."

Bell acknowledged that he has some lobbying to do before the bill comes to a final Senate vote as early as Monday. He says he also expects opposition in the House.

"This legal opinion is so impressive," he said. "If people will think inside the bill and read that legal opinion, I don't know how they can argue 'slippery slope.' "

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has not taken a position on SB89, said spokesman Dale Bills. The church had issued a statement indicating support for Amendment 3.


E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com