The Senate passed a bill Monday aimed at spelling out what benefits local governments can provide to unmarried partners after taking out a provision clarifying hospital visitation rights.
SB299 was approved 21-7-1 after two Democrats questioned the need for the Legislature to get involved in Salt Lake City's new domestic partner registry that gives unmarried couples a way to provide evidence for employers who want to extend to them health-care and other benefits.
Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, the only openly gay member of the Senate, said he hoped the bill was a first step toward recognizing that the state's 53,000 gays and lesbians need basic benefits.
"We are invisible in Utah law and that is wrong. There are tens of thousands of us," McCoy said, who are paying their taxes, raising
their kids and facing the "exact same kitchen table issues" as other Utahns but without the same legal protection.
McCoy said the registry was not an attempt to undermine traditional marriage and while Utahns approved Amendment 3 to the Utah Constitution to prohibit gay marriage, most do not oppose gay and lesbian couples having basic rights.
"I'm concerned we keep picking on Salt Lake City," Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, said, describing the bill as part of "an ever increasing effort encroach on and micromanage" local governments, especially the capital city.
The sponsor of SB299, Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, said the bill was "not targeted with any animosity whatsoever against Salt Lake City. It happened they passed the ordinance we have to address the issue."
Bell sought the removal of the provision on hospital visitation rights because he said he was not needed and the bill was intended to be conceptual, not specific.
"This is kind of a flavor-of-the-month situation," he said, noting other issues could arise.
The Senate did unanimously approve intent language stating that lawmakers did not want the bill to "disturb any hospital visitation rights provided by a municipal registry."
Bell said lawmakers should continue to work on "life issues that non-traditional couples and families face" without focusing specifically on gays and lesbians.
"It behooves us to work on these other issues so long as it's done in a neutral way," he said. "We don't want to be mean-spirited."The bill now goes to the House.