Utah State Representative LaVar Christensen went a step further than simply opposing marriage equality this past week when he introduced legislation that could make certain contracts between gay and lesbian couples unenforceable, would prohibit the state from recognizing same-sex couples and their children as a family and would scrutinize existing and future policies and legislation in the sole interest of propping up the married heterosexual family unit.
Christensen is the author of Utah’s 2004 voter-approved constitutional amendment defining marriage in the state as a heterosexual union, but the legislation he has just introduced goes a lot further.
From On Top Magazine:
One of the measures states that married heterosexual families are the “fundamental unit of society.”
“We still hold up that this is what we know and all the evidence and all the history shows that the best environment for raising and nurturing children is in that traditional and natural family unit,” Christensen told Salt Lake City-based Fox13now.com.
The bill states: “Marriage and family predate all governments and are supported by and consistent with the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God, the Creator and Supreme Judge of the World, affirmed in the nation’s founding Declaration of Independence.”
Christensen has actually introduced four separate bills which I’ll look at below, each of which may be a cause for concern and not just for LGBT rights advocates.
House Bill 270 “Family Policy”
The bill would make explicit the definition that “family” comprises a legally married man and woman plus children, and mandates all relevant laws and regulations be carefully scrutinized to see how they impact “family and the protection of children.” The bill lists the following as areas of concern: “dissolution of marriage, crime, poverty, immorality, violence and other conditions that place added responsibilities on individuals and communities through publicly funded and administered social programs and government services.”
The bill also calls for the promotion of the married heterosexual family at every turn. Christensen told ABC news that this would not be retrogressive but would enable Utahns to “[go] forward with our founding principles firmly in place.”
The bill requires that the state spend 1% of state LAND (Learning And Nurturing Development) money “for the purpose of providing leadership to the state’s continuous focus on civic and character education in public schools.”
James Humphreys of Utah’s Log Cabin Republicans has raised a concern about this one, saying, “In essence, what he is attempting to do is to ensure that his definition of character or moral character is taught in the public schools.”
House Bill 182 “Voiding Transactions Against Public Policy”
This is perhaps the most innocuous sounding yet potentially the most troubling. Gay rights advocates have warned that together with the first bill on family policy, this legislation could render contracts between same-sex partners void.
Previously introduced in 2006, the bill reads as just a single sentence: “An arrangement, agreement, or transaction that is unlawful or violates public policy is void and unenforceable.”
Christensen has denied that this bill is anti-gay and has said that it is designed to combat gambling and drug contracts. During previous legislative debates however, Christensen did admit that while generic contracts could not be voided the legislation had potential to void contracts between same-sex couples in areas that were perceived to conflict with existing policy (which one notes he wants to broaden to bolster heterosexual marriages).
During debate on the House floor, Rep. Ross Romero asked Christensen, “will the passage of this bill have the effect of precluding gay and lesbian couples from contracting, as they have, from such things as transferring assets, having property agreements, having joint trust agreements, and life estate transferring or property contracts?”
“As it relates to that specific question, the answer is, ‘no,’” Christensen responded. “There are certain agreements that are so generic in nature that are outside, in the private community. If you want to walk into a title company and for 10 dollars purchase a joint tenancy deed and fill it out to whoever you want that person to be, you can do it. If you want a durable power of attorney to make medical decisions, you can do it. Those agreements do not violate public policy.”
Christensen went on, however, to note the case Jones v. Barlow, in which the two women in a lesbian relationship filed for joint custody between Keri Jones and the biological mother, Cheryl Barlow. Christensen represented the agreement as a “de facto marriage, de facto adoption, de facto divorce in violation of public policy.”
“But if we have on our statute specific marriage laws, and if we have a marriage recognition policy – in that situation, if there was a conflict between the two, and the existing statute that establishes our specific policy on that specific issue, that would prevail.”
This joins nicely with:
House Bill 109 “Religious Liberty Recognition”
According to the bill’s text, the law would explicitly affirm that “the free exercise of religious liberty is a recognized exemption to otherwise generally applicable laws and a valid defense to claims of discrimination by others.”
There are a few thin caveats mentioned in the text, but the bill’s wording would seem to indicate that Christensen is trying to codify religious freedom of expression in such a way that could overrule, for example, Salt Lake City’s LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinance that was passed in 2009—one among several entities in the state to offer such protections.
The Church of Latter Day Saints supported the non-discrimination measure, but several religious conservative groups have actively opposed LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination laws. However, as a matter of course the ordinances themselves carry religious exemptions for small businesses and religious institutions. Christensen’s proposed change in the law would seem to expand those exemptions almost exponentially.
Understandably, gay rights groups have condemned the above legislation for the impact it could have on same-sex couples and LGBT rights as a whole.
Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, said the group is “deeply concerned” about the proposed [Voiding Transactions Against Public Policy] law.
“It could be used to create a filter for public agencies and a way to target laws, services and funding that currently help single Utahns or Utahns with families that differ from Representative Christensen’s,” she said.
Balken worries the two bills together [House Bill 182 and House Bill 270] could be interpreted as stating that same-sex relationships are against public policy and so contracts, such as medical directives and wills, between gay and lesbian couples are void and unenforceable. Such a policy could impact anyone who depends on relationships besides those with a spouse or child.
“If that is how it is construed, then this would have implications for a great number of Utahns,” Balken said.
However, this legislative assault seems more encompassing than just applying to same-sex couples. It would also appear to impact heterosexual couples who are unmarried but have children, defining away their right to be recognized as a family in the way married couples are. In addition, the invocation of the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God, the Creator and Supreme Judge of the World” as being the basis of public policy would seem yet another issue of wider concern.
Even separately these bills are cause for concern given how apparently overreaching they are, but when put together they amount to a determined attempt at imposing a very narrow agenda on the state of Utah’s citizens.