'Dramatic jump' with Utahns for gay rights

More want SLC's rules to go statewide; marriage, adoption don't gain traction.

The Salt Lake Tribune/January 30, 2010

When Salt Lake City embraced anti-discrimination ordinances for gay and transgender residents last fall - snagging a landmark endorsement by the LDS Church and widespread support from city officials - more shifted than public policy.

Public opinion - throughout Utah - jumped, too.

Support for some gay rights, short of marriage, climbed 11 percentage points across the state from a year ago, according to a new Salt Lake Tribune poll, and shot up by 10 percent among Mormons.

Two-thirds of Utahns (67 percent) favor employment protections and safeguards for same-sex couples such as hospital visitation and inheritance rights, up from 56 percent in January 2009, when pollsters asked the same question. (This year's survey of 625 frequent Utah voters has an error margin of plus or minus 4 percentage points; last year's was 4.5 percent.)

Opposition dropped, overall, from 40 percent to 23 percent. Among LDS respondents, it plummeted from 48 percent to 28 percent.

"This isn't a gradual change of attitudes. This is a fairly dramatic jump," says Matthew Burbank, chairman of the University of Utah's political science department. "Clearly, the fact that the LDS Church was officially endorsing this position had an impact on people."

A similar number of respondents, 66 percent, also say they support expanding Salt Lake City's anti-discrimination policy - the first of its kind in Utah and already mimicked in Salt Lake County - throughout the state.

In November, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, making good on a campaign promise, and the City Council approved two ordinances that ban housing and employment discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation or gender identity (with exemptions for religious organizations, small businesses and landlords).

Becker, too, deserves credit for swaying public opinion, says Quin Monson, associate director of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. It's likely, Monson says, that the LDS Church's endorsement influenced many members of the faith, but opinions among non-Mormons changed, too.

"Perhaps the whole discussion around what happened in Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County did as much to change minds among voters" as the endorsement, Monson says. "You can think of our political leaders leading out, taking some leadership and taking public opinion along with them."

In the 2009 poll, Mormon opinion of protections for same-sex couples, short of marriage, was in a dead heat: 49 percent of LDS respondents were in favor and 48 percent against. A year later, when asked the same question, 59 percent voiced support and 28 percent declared opposition, with 13 percent unsure. Support among non-LDS respondents spurted from 68 percent to 84 percent.

"This shift," Monson says, "certainly ought to get the attention of the state Legislature and the governor."

But despite that widespread public support, state lawmakers won't to be passing an anti-discrimination law this year.

On Friday, Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City, announced a "compromise" in which she is shelving, until 2011, her bill to ban housing and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

"There's more educating and more work to be done," Johnson says, "to get to the point where we can run a bill confidently, assured that the Legislature will support it."

In the latest poll, Utahns do not show more openness toward two other gay-rights questions: civil unions and adoption.

Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a popular Republican who declared his support for civil unions in February 2009, appears not to have budged opinion on the issue. This year, 28 percent of Utahns polled say they support amending the Utah Constitution to permit civil unions for same-sex couples. (In 2009, 25 percent backed such a move, but the change falls within the poll's error margin.)

Similarly, 33 percent say they favor changing state law to allow unmarried, cohabiting couples - including same-sex partners - to adopt and foster children. (In 2009, the number was 35 percent.)

"That's an area where we need to continue to do work," says Equality Utah Executive Director Brandie Balken, "to educate people about how happy and healthy our families are and how happy and healthy our kids are."

But Balken was pleased by the widespread support for more basic protections. One factor prodding the change in attitudes, she says, is the increasing openness of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

"Once you know someone who is gay or transgender, you're much less likely to have a negative opinion of them," she says. "People have started to recognize that this really is a basic issue of fairness."

Poll respondent Jania Evans, a 69-year-old Mormon who lives in Draper, says knowing people who are gay has changed her opinions over time. She supports basic protections for same-sex couples, anti-discrimination measures and - having worked with a gay man parenting two children with his partner - adoption rights for unmarried couples. Because of her religious beliefs, she says, she does not support civil unions or gay marriage.

"They have as much love and affection for their soul mates as heterosexuals who are married," Evans says. "I see no reason why they should be denied [basic rights]."

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