The debate between the Sutherland Institute and Equality Utah, two of the biggest players in the battle over gay rights in Utah, was scheduled and the topic selected weeks before the event took place Thursday night. The question: Should the Utah Legislature pass the Common Ground Initiative?
With the last of the gay rights bills dying in a legislative committee on Wednesday, the face-off, a formal contest between political opponents, proved that the bigger debate — the one taking place around tables in downtown coffee shops and suburban homes — is anything but over.
"We certainly are not here to change each other's minds about where we stand," said Sutherland President Paul Mero. "The intellectual, legal and moral chasm between the two sides is so great that true common ground is nearly impossible to achieve."
With both sides accusing the other of living in a "fantasy world," the rhetoric was ramped up and polished, practiced repeatedly over the course of the legislative session.
Sutherland's representatives said there was no standing in the Constitution for the expansion of gay rights, and that the problem should be addressed culturally rather than through laws.
"You don't have to love me, but you shouldn't be able to fire me just because I'm gay," Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, fired back.
After saying "the gloves must come off," Mero called sexual orientation "an illusion" and said the LGBT community was one with "umpteen different genders to choose from."
Former state Rep. LaVar Christensen said disease and promiscuity were "sky high" in the LGBT community.
Equality Utah's Will Carlson responded, "If we're looking to stop the spread of disease, only lesbians should be allowed to be intimate."
One side cited polls and studies; the other tried to debunk them as unprofessional. One side referenced the Bible, the other pointed to contrary scripture. Both sides accused the other of refusing to discuss the real issues. Back and forth they went for nearly two hours in the S.J. Quinney College of Law.
Though both sides vehemently disagreed on the issue Thursday, experts seemed to find common ground on one thing: The longer the debate exists, the better the outcome will be for gay rights advocates.
"It's not going to go away anytime soon," Lynn Wardle, a family law professor at Brigham Young University's law school, told the Deseret News earlier this month. "There's a value set or moral environment in Utah that will make it controversial a lot longer than it will be in Hollywood. But the longer it hangs around, the more it gets accepted."
Equality Utah officials, however, don't see it as a process of wearing down voters and lawmakers to the point of acceptance. While the Common Ground Initiative took its lumps on Capitol Hill, the legislative push for gay rights, unparalleled in Utah's history, prompted a discussion most Utahns had never engaged in before, Carlson said.
"All we need is for people to think about this and we win," he said.
Common Ground opponents argued throughout the bills' run that they would create a "slippery slope" to same-sex marriage in Utah.
"One of the consequences of this attempt to exclude gay couples from marriage is it starts to raise the question: Do they deserve any protections?" Carlson told the Deseret News editorial board prior to the start of the legislative session. "Whereas before this marriage debate occurred, that kind of question wasn't occurring to the average American."
Meanwhile, marriage — for better or for worse — has lost some of its cultural consensus, said Bill Duncan, a family law expert for the Sutherland Institute.
"In order for marriage to play a role in society, it's only going to do that if there is some basic agreement about what it means and what it's supposed to do," Duncan said, following a recent debate at the Hinckley Institute of Politics. "The more we find it's a contested area, the less likely marriage is to continue in that role."
On the Hill, the Common Ground bills were defeated soundly, garnering just one Republican vote along the way. But proponents saw progress in a set of committee hearings, teeming with supporters wearing Common Ground buttons.
"We're in this for the long haul," said Stephanie Pappas, chairwoman of Equality Utah's board. "Common Ground is not going away. We're going to keep working on it."
As Thursday's debate ended and peopled filed out the moot courtroom, the discussion continued in the halls, out to the parking lots and beyond.
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