"I would like to be thought of as someone who is intensely committed to maintaining the fundamental moral values of the country," said Utah State Sen. Chris Buttars. How does his "dark, ugly baby" comment square with what he says has been his campaign slogan, "Defending traditional values?" Is a civil right not a moral value?

While it is a concern that the senator uttered those words, just as disquieting is the reaction of his colleagues. They sat silently while he made the comments in open Senate session and then considered the matter over. And it would have been, had not Sen. Ross Romero brought his opposition to the remarks to the Senate president during a break. The Senate has the responsibility for assuring our public policies and discourse reflect the moral values of all Utahns.

Some students from around the state who watched it unfold were surprised and questioned that the Senate was so quiet on the matter. The Senate seemed to behave like parents who let a child go back out and play after apologizing for the name-calling and dismissed the actions as more like "boys will be boys."

Words matter. While the apology was necessary, is it enough to make things right? What does it say about our government in action?

The matter reflects upon us as a state, a government and a society. Do we have a government that does not see civil rights as a moral value? If that comment had been made in the workplace or an educational setting, would it have been tolerated so casually? Or, would the boss understand its implications and how it was demeaning and creating an intimidating, hostile environment for others — a civil rights violation?

For a man who claims to defend traditional values, Buttars' words and subsequent actions are troubling. Many see the incongruity between his words — the apology — and his actions, which appear to be to do nothing different, continue on in office and seek re-election. One way to defend traditional moral values would be for him to have his actions match his words.

If the Utah Senate will be judging its members by "the content of their character," as they said, then shouldn't part of the litmus test be how a member upholds the values of a civil society?

One wonders if we have become a society that allows its elected officials to violate values that many Americans fought and even died for in protecting the civil rights of all citizens. Is there a moral numbness creeping in to our state's ethical fiber? Have we become so insensitive to how we treat each other? After all, isn't the definition of morality how members of a society treat each other?

Certainly, it will be up to those in Buttars' district to determine his political fate. Their decision will reflect the moral values of their community; however, the Senate as a whole has the responsibility for assuring that our public policies and discourses reflect the moral values of all Utahns. Lawmakers should realize that with the World Wide Web, their decisions let the world form an impression about Utah.

It's time our lawmakers stood up and restored the integrity and morality to the people's government. And citizens should support those who do.

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."


Utah native John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations, served on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch and on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards. He also has been deputy assistant secretary of labor. E-mail: [email protected]