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Civil-union stance of guv spurs protests

Huntsman stays away from Capitol; Buttars circulates a statement

Published: Thursday, Feb. 12 2009 1:18 a.m. MST

The day after declaring his support for civil unions, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. canceled a press conference and held other meetings at the governor's mansion rather than in his office in the Capitol.

His spokeswoman, Lisa Roskelley, declined Wednesday to comment on any threats that may have been received by the governor's office. She said the majority of the calls and e-mails made to the office, however, were to say "thank you."

Huntsman's statement that he backs civil unions "in the broadest sense" as well as the "Common Ground" legislative initiative intended to extend the benefits of marriage to gay and other couples sparked protests at the Capitol Wednesday that included lawmakers.

Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, was circulating a statement warning that civil unions in Utah "would threaten marriage and religious freedom." He was asking his fellow GOP senators to sign the statement if they agreed.

Buttars, who said he didn't want to discuss the statement written by the Marriage Law Foundation, said it would not be forwarded to the governor. "No. It's just a statement. I don't think it'll go anywhere," he said. "I just wanted people to read it. It's very well-written."

Roskelley said the governor was willing to discuss his views. "This is a democracy. Everybody has a right to speak out on their position, and the governor has," she said. "He'll talk to people about it. He's inviting a community dialogue."

As for speculation among lawmakers that Huntsman took such a controversial stand in the hopes of landing a position with President Obama, a Democrat, Roskelley said, "The governor is happy being governor and he's not seeking any post."

Huntsman, who speaks fluent Mandarin, has been on a short list for U.S. ambassador to China in previous administrations. He has served as a diplomat in several GOP administrations, including a stint as U.S. ambassador to Singapore.

The press conference canceled by the governor dealt with health-care reform and was to have included legislative leaders. Roskelley said "there was some concern" about the potential distraction posed by the protests but that health-care reform remained a priority.

The governor also canceled his regular weekly luncheon with Republican leaders. Huntsman met late Tuesday with Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, and House Speaker David Clark, R-Santa Clara. Waddoups said the governor brought up his statement on civil unions.

"He said, 'I've always felt that way. I've stated my position before and this is the first time it's been publicized,' " Waddoups said, adding he told the governor he knew that was true.

The Senate leader said Huntsman wasn't referring to civil unions as an alternative to marriage for gay couples but as a way for non-traditional couples to share benefits. The governor had tried and failed in 2005 to push through a Senate bill advocating reciprocal benefits for non-traditional couples.

Some senators, though, are "very concerned" about Huntsman's statement, Waddoups said, especially Buttars. Waddoups said he signed the statement being passed around by Buttars.

The author of that statement, Bill Duncan, said he's not sure what the governor meant by civil unions. "If he doesn't mean he wants to create something that is exactly the same as a marriage with a different name for same-sex couples … (that) is clearly significantly less controversial," Duncan said. "A lot of people feel comfortable with that."

The only openly gay state senator, Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, said Buttars' effort "seems like political theater to me." McCoy, whose "Common Ground" initiative bill was killed in committee, said the opposition to civil unions won't "come as any surprise."

State Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland called Huntsman's statement on civil unions a courageous move and said it makes the GOP governor look like a moderate.

Todd Weiler, state Republican Party vice chairman, said to his knowledge there has only been one call to party headquarters complaining about Huntsman's statement.

Contributing: Bob Bernick Jr.

E-MAIL: lisa@desnews.com

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