SALT LAKE CITY — A seemingly benign proposal to offer a Utah license plate honoring Martin Luther King Jr. veered into discussion Tuesday about abortion and gay marriage.
Some members of the House Transportation Committee balked at the idea because a portion of the money raised by the sale of the special tags would support a human rights awareness program for young people.
Asked what he considered human rights, Utah Martin Luther King Human Rights Foundation chairman Roderic Land mentioned food, shelter, security and education.
"Do we have a right to have an abortion?" asked Rep. Brad Daw.
"I believe in choice," replied Land, a University of Utah professor of education culture and society.
"Do we have a right to marry who we want?" Daw continued.
"It's a choice," Land said.
Daw said those answers made him "uncomfortable." He said passing HB506 "leaves ourselves open to things, frankly, I don't agree with."
The Orem Republican was among the committee members who voted against the bill, which passed 7-3. It now goes to the House floor where bill sponsor Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake, said she expects similar debate.
Utah offers specialty license plates to groups that can get at least 500 people to sign up for them. Obtaining the MLK plate would require applicants to pay $35 a year to a proposed Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Support account managed by the Utah Department of Community and Culture.
The foundation already has commitments from more than 400 people, Chavez-Houck said.
Land told the committee the foundation intends to use the money for minority scholarships and internships as well as a summer program to involve sixth-graders through high school students in their communities and to study human and civil rights.
"If we think about getting with kids at a very young age and teaching them about the social ills that plague our society, it can make our community that much better," Land said.
It was the latter program that raised eyebrows among some committee members.
Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, said he's comfortable with rights outlined in the Constitution, but "very challenged" to construe feeding the hungry as a basic right that government should secure.
Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, suggested the debate had gotten off track.
"I'm not sure we'd be having this discussion with fisherman or elk hunters or ATV riders," he said. All of those groups have specialty license plates.
Handy said the issue is whether the MLK foundation has met the legislative standards for special plates, and in his opinion it had.
Chavez-Houck said she agreed with Handy that there's not necessarily a right to fish. The foundation, she said, is looking to promote its principles and encourage young people to better their lives. It should be afforded the same opportunity as other groups with speciality plates, she said.
At least two states — Florida and Arkansas — currently offer Martin Luther King Jr. license plates.
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