Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
Utah Sen. Chris Buttars watches from the back of the Senate chambers on Monday during a vote on an immigration measure. Buttars had his controversial bill that targeted Salt Lake City's domestic partnership registry replaced.

Sen. Chris Buttars said he was nervous about apologizing to the largely black Calvary Baptist Church congregation on Sunday for making statements that have been called racist, but the experience turned out to be "wonderful."

The same can't be said of what was happening Monday to the West Jordan Republican in the Senate, where he is starting to see political repercussions despite the public backing of Senate GOP leadership.

His controversial bill targeting Salt Lake City's domestic partnership registry, SB267, was in effect replaced Monday after a closed-door Senate Republican caucus meeting. House Republican leaders have made it clear they want no part of Buttars' bill because he was sponsoring it.

The Senate voted Monday to allow Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, to open a late bill file on the same issue. Buttars' bill was sent to the Rules Committee on Friday and now could stay there the rest of the session.

Bell said his bill will spell out when local governments can legally recognize unmarried persons as financial co-dependents. "We don't want the term the 'domestic partnership.' We feel like that would potentially undermine Amendment 3," he said, referring to the state's constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage.

Also Monday, Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, took the unusual action mid-session of removing Buttars as chairman of the Senate Judicial Confirmation Committee and replacing him with Bell.

Buttars, who will remain on the committee, has made a name for himself on the Hill as an outspoken critic of Utah's judiciary. Over the years, Buttars has railed against what he saw as judges making law through their rulings. He has been criticized recently for contacting a judge about a decision.

Valentine downplayed any political repercussions for Buttars and said he was "appreciative of both Sen. Buttars and the community for reaching out to each other" on the ongoing controversy over Buttars' statements.

During a Feb. 12 debate on the Senate floor about a school equalization bill, Buttars used the word "black" to negatively describe the "baby" being divided by the bill, saying "This baby is black, I'll tell you. This is a dark and ugly thing."

Although he apologized that same day on the Senate floor after being rebuked for a breach of decorum as well as in a posting to the Senate GOP blog, Buttars later called his critics a "hate lynch mob." He initially planned to fight back with a newspaper ad and a rally at the Capitol.

Buttars told the Deseret Morning News Monday that he explained to the several hundred churchgoers in attendance the day before that he made "a real mistake and I apologize for it and I'd like to see if you could forgive me. I didn't try to use any justification."

When the congregation was asked if there was any member who could not forgive him, Buttars said, "there wasn't a voice. I feel great about that. That was wonderful." He said he was nervous about going to the service — his first at a predominantly black church — because Calvary Baptist "is the size of two (LDS) stake centers."

Following the service, Buttars said members of the congregation greeted him warmly. "There must have been 30 or so ladies that gave me a hug and wanted a picture with me. Which I found a little shocking," he said. "They're a wonderful people."

Buttars was invited to speak in front of the congregation by the Rev. France Davis after the pair had what the senator called a blunt discussion about his recent statements, which have led the NAACP to call for his resignation.

Despite his latest apology, the local branch of the NAACP continues to call for Buttars' resignation.

"It does not affect anything the NAACP is doing," the organization's Salt Lake branch president, Jeanetta Williams, said. "The NAACP and Calvary Baptist Church are two separate organizations. We are a civil-rights organization."

Williams questioned whether Buttars would apologize to other congregations since there are African-Americans and others offended by his statements that attend different churches. f+tf-t

Instead, she said, the organization is attempting to encourage candidates to run against Buttars in Senate District 10. Williams said she's already heard from several people who intend to come forward during the filing period, March 7-17.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who last week said he was personally offended by Buttars' statement, sounded positive Monday about Buttars' church visit. He called it a "very good gesture" on both the part of Rev. Davis and Buttars.

"I think that represents a very good gesture both on the part of Rev. France Davis, who is head of the Calvary Baptist Church, and on the part of Sen. Buttars as well," the governor said. "Any time that you can promote understanding on the both sides, it's an important event," Huntsman said,

House Democrats weighed in on the controversy with a statement calling for a renewed commitment to civility, tolerance and recognition of diversity.

"The caucus as a whole felt a need to respond, but not become part of the fray," said Utah House Minority Whip Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake.

Contributing: Arthur Raymond, Geoffrey Fattah, Suzanne Struglinski