A defiant Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, said Friday he won't let his ouster from two key legislative committee chairmanships stop him from defending marriage against "an increasingly vocal and radical segment of the homosexual community."
Earlier Friday, Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, took the unusual step of publicly announcing he was removing Buttars as both chairman and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee
The decision also strips Buttars of his chairmanship of the Senate Judicial Confirmation Committee. Buttars, re-elected last year to a third term, remains chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and vice-chairman of the powerful Rules Committee.
Waddoups said his action should not be seen as a punishment for anti-gay statements Buttars made to a documentary filmmaker, which include comparing gay-rights activists to Muslim terrorists and calling them "the greatest threat to America going down."
The Senate leader said Buttars is considered by his colleagues to be a "stalwart" who "represents the views of many of his constituents and many of ours." Waddoups acknowledged he did not agree with everything Buttars said, but he repeatedly declined to be specific.
Waddoups said taking Buttars off a committee that would likely hear gay-rights bills "will be a freeing mechanism for Sen. Buttars to function, to more fully express his freedom of speech."
Just minutes after Waddoups made his announcement in a room jammed with news media, Buttars was asked by reporters on the Senate floor about the gay community wanting an apology. "Well, they ain't going to get one," he replied.
Told what Buttars had said in response to the request for an apology, Waddoups said, "It sounds to me like he's not going to offer one. I'm not going to tell him how to run his public service."
Buttars also posted a lengthy statement on the Senate majority Web site that said he disagreed with the action taken by Waddoups since committee work "is entirely unrelated to my opposition to the homosexual agenda."
But Buttars said the "action will not discourage me from defending marriage from an increasingly vocal and radical segment of the homosexual community." He said he "would rather be censured for doing what I think is right, than be honored by my colleagues for bowing to the pressure of a special interest group that has been allowed to act with impunity."
At least some of his colleagues said privately they'd hoped for more from Buttars. Many felt after a GOP caucus Thursday that Buttars was seriously considering resigning. One member of his caucus, near tears, said he just wanted to see Buttars apologize from the Senate floor.
None of that happened. Instead, Buttars chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee — for the last time — Friday morning and did not appear as expected at the press conference.
Waddoups, who said he talked with Buttars before the press conference "to assess what his mental attitude was and to express the support of his colleagues," said Buttars did not offer to step down. "As I spoke to him this morning, he had no inclination whatsoever to do that, and I was not encouraging him to do that," Waddoups said.
Senate leaders were clearly frustrated at having to deal with yet another controversy surrounding Buttars. Last year, during a floor debate, Buttars used the word "black" to negatively describe the "baby" being divided by a bill, saying, "This baby is black, I'll tell you. This is a dark and ugly thing." He apologized shortly afterwards.
That statement was condemned as racist and the local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People asked for his resignation. Soon after, Buttars lost his Senate Judicial Confirmation Committee chairmanship over a letter he'd written to a judge critical of a ruling.
Waddoups, who criticized how his predecessor in the Senate presidency treated Buttars, said this had been "probably the toughest 24 hours of my 22 years in the Legislature. It has my temples pounding." He said he'd received more than 10,000 e-mails by midmorning, all from the Human Rights Campaign and all critical of Buttars.
"Form e-mails don't mean anything," Waddoups said. He said from his constituents, he'd heard "some are embarrassed, some are proud." Asked if the controversy was affecting the state's image, he told reporters, "if you guys would leave it alone, it wouldn't be."
He and other Senate leaders said repeatedly they didn't want to infringe on Buttars' First Amendment rights. "The debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide open," said Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse. Legislative attorneys were consulted, Killpack said, to avoid having "a chilling effect."
The Senate GOP leaders took action after being told by Senate Democrats that if they didn't, the minority party planned to raise the issue on the floor Thursday.
The only openly gay member of the Senate, Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, said Waddoups didn't go far enough and suggested Buttars should have lost all his chairmanships.
"What (Buttars) has said, quite frankly I think, is a stain on the Senate, and I am really disappointed there wasn't a little bit more done in response," McCoy said.
"He is a member of the Senate, and he is held to a higher standard, "McCoy said. "He has been elected to a high office in the state. He represents not just himself, he represents his constituents, he represents the people of the state of Utah and he represents the institution of the Senate."
House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, said: "Chris is a good man and a good legislator; he's spent his career serving kids (as the retired director of the Utah Boys Ranch). But he has a hard time controlling what he says."
Senate Minority Whip Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, said Friday he intended to seek a change in legislative rules that would require cultural diversity training for lawmakers. "Understanding why words matter is an important part of this dialogue going forward," Romero said.
There seemed to be little interest in such training among the Senate GOP leaders. "You want us to go to sensitivity training because you disagree with what was said," Senate Majority Whip Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, told reporters.
Senate Majority Assistant Whip Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, also questioned the idea.
"This isn't a company. We are elected officials. Sen. Buttars was elected by his constituency," Bell said. "We're not going to mandate he has some sensitivity training. He's responsible for what he says. He's been a politician in public service for a long time. He can defend himself."
A number of organizations weighed in Friday on the controversy, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The LDS Church had attracted attention over its support of Proposition 8 in California, which banned gay marriage.
LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter said in a statement, "From the outset, the church's position has always been to engage in civil and respectful dialogue on this issue. Sen. Buttars does not speak for the church."
Contributing: David Servatius, Bob Bernick Jr.
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