SALT LAKE CITY — A bill intended to ensure all married couples are treated equally in adoption and foster placements of children in state care failed in a House committee Wednesday.
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said she proposed HB234 as an administrative update to Utah code to reflect the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. She said the state risks being sued if it doesn't update the law.
"I have a lot of constituents who are very loving parents. For us to deny them a right because of who they love is ridiculous," she told the House Judiciary Committee.
The committee vote ended 5-5, meaning the bill failed. The legislation aimed to change the words "man and woman" to "couple" or "spouse" in state adoption and foster parent laws.
Committee members opposing the bill argued that the Supreme Court decision is limited to only marriage and doesn't demand Utah confer other rights.
"States are required to give gay couples marriage licenses. They are not required to give gay couples children either through foster placements or adoptive placements," said Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, the committee vice chairman.
Nelson said the state isn't barring gay parents from adopting or foster care, but remains free to express a preference for man-woman marriages in child placements.
"This should not be about gay couples," said Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray. "It should be about whether or not the children are in a safe environment."
Salt Lake attorney Paul Burke told the committee that the Supreme Court made clear that its ruling applies to all conditions of marriage. The state, he said, can't ban same-sex couples from marriage on the same terms as opposite-sex couples. Leaving man and woman in the law makes it unconstitutional, he said.
But Committee Chairman Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, said those favoring the bill mischaracterized the Supreme Court decision. Legislators, he said, can't be "misled" into thinking they have to broaden or extend the law.
"It expands an area that is disputed law. It is based on a flawed premise," Christensen said of HB234.
Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, said voting against the bill means the issue will come up again either in court or at the Legislature. If lawmakers don't make a decision, it would be telling judges the state hasn't decided if same-sex couples are legally qualified to be adoptive or foster parents, he said.
"I would prefer we own that policy decision and not the courts," Snow said.
Another bill sponsored by Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, would change dozens of references in state paternity law to reflect legalized same-sex marriage.
SB179 would change "man" or "woman" to "person" and "father" to "parent," for example, in the Utah Uniform Parentage Act, which deals with paternity and parental rights. It is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee on Thursday.