Draft Bill Would Grant Marriage Rights to Cohabiting Couples

Draft Bill Would Grant Marriage Rights to Cohabiting Couples

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A state senator has drafted a bill that would allow some unmarried adults who live together but can't marry in Utah to sign a contract giving them some rights marriage provides.

The legislation from Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, would cover a broad variety of unmarried adults, from a sister and brother, aunt and niece, or a gay or lesbian couple.

Gov.-elect Jon Huntsman Jr. first suggested the legislation during campaign debates over the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which voters passed last month.

However, his chief of staff, Jason Chaffetz, was careful to say that the measure would be based on economic dependency, and not intended as a gay rights bill -- a nod to how the "Mutual Dependence Benefits Contract" bill is portrayed on Capitol Hill is as important as what it would do. If the legislation is cast as a gay rights measure, it likely is doomed among conservative Utah lawmakers.

"What's important to us is that we not base it on sexual preferences or lifestyle choices," Chaffetz said.

Under Senate Bill 89, "mutual dependents" would have some of the same rights as a married couple, such as hospital visitation and end-of-life decisions about organ donation and the choice of burial or cremation. If two people purchase a home together and one dies, the contract would grant the remaining person "survivorship," without requiring a trip to probate court.

The state Department of Health would develop a form couples could fill out, eliminating the need for lawyers. The contracts would be terminated if either party married.

Bell, who supported the amendment banning gay marriage, started working on his legislation before Utah voters approved the ban in November. He believes unmarried couples can protect themselves with private contracts establishing inheritance rights and custody of children, but says his legislation would fill in the gaps in those legal agreements.

Bell says he will hold other Amendment 3 supporters to their pledges not to deny Utah residents "legitimate" rights.

"We're not mean-spirited," he said. "We really want to secure legitimate rights for people who need to operate in a different context."

An Amendment 3 co-sponsor, West Jordan GOP Sen. Chris Buttars, has said he would consider the idea.

And Yes on 3 Co-Chairman Monte Stewart said "true conservatives" would support "proper" rights legislation.

Chaffetz said Huntsman might want to add provisions to Bell's bill. The governor-elect has talked to Attorney General Mark Shurtleff about the legislation. And Utah Log Cabin Republican Chairman Gordon Storrs is a member of Huntsman's transition team.

Michael Mitchell, director of Equality Utah, a gay rights organization, said he isn't worried about the words used so much as the substance of the bill.

"Everybody's going to spin this the way they want. The far right will spin this. We will spin it," Mitchell said.

"What I'm concerned about first and foremost is that gay and lesbian couples who want to enter into lifelong relationships have some of the protections that allow them to go through difficult situations with a little more confidence that they'll be treated fairly," he said.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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