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SALT LAKE CITY -- Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman said Thursday that Utah's constitutional ban on gay marriage is unclear on the issue of civil unions between gay couples, and that a court will probably have to decide if the unions are allowed here.
"I don't know that that bans it specifically," Huntsman said. "I think that ultimately could be a court case and that might be adjudicated in court over time if it ever gets to that level. But that wasn't clear." The Republican governor says that while he supports traditional marriage, he also supports same-sex civil unions.
"To my mind, and to the mind of a lot of Utahns, equate to equal rights to all people, and I stand by that and I will continue to stand by that," Huntsman said in his monthly news conference Thursday.
Huntsman's relatively moderate approach to civil unions was interpreted as a "sign of changing times," by one East Coast columnist. Frank Rich of the New York Times says, in many cases, conservatives are dropping the cause.
The governor stops short of saying that. He does, however, agree with this argument made by Rich: "The general public, including people who consider themselves otherwise conservative, are more concerned about the economy, and jobs, and what's happening in the world at large and less concerned with what's happening in their neighbor's bedroom."
"That part, I agree with," Huntsman said. "I think in today's environment, people expect their elected officials to focus on their immediate needs out there."
Ultraconservatives at Utah's Sutherland Institute also agree with creating priorities, but Jeff Reynolds still says gay marriage is an issue that deserves attention.
"To say that people aren't concerned about gay marriage because of the economy, I don't know if that's true. I think it's in addition to," Reynolds said.
Meanwhile, Will Carlson, public policy director for the gay rights advocacy group Equality Utah, welcomed Huntsman's comments.
"He can be a great ally. It's very heartening to know that he's on our side and he believes in social justice. Having said that, he's the executive branch and we still need to convince the legislative branch that these things are about basic protections and fairness for all Utahns," he said.
For Huntsman, there's little political risk in making such statements, even in one of the nation's most conservative states.
He's one of the most popular governors in state history and has pledged not to seek a third term in 2012. If he were seeking a third term, he likely would have difficulty making it out of the state's GOP convention, which favors ultraconservative candidates.
Huntsman has become increasingly moderate on many issues since taking office and is often defended by Democrats in Utah.
In addition to his support for civil unions, Huntsman has become staked out moderate positions on energy and the environment and has worked to make the state's notoriously quirky liquor laws a little more normal.
Huntsman contends that nationwide, Republicans need to do more to bring in new people to the party if wants to bounce back from the 2008 elections.
"The party isn't moving anywhere right now," Huntsman said.
In Thursday's news conference, the governor also dismissed the claim that he's running for president in 2012.
Story compiled with contributions from Richard Piatt and The Associated Press.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report. Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)