Gay-rights bills have been snuffed out for the 2009 legislative session, but the discussion burns on.
Equality Utah, an advocacy group for gay and transgender Utahns, and the conservative Sutherland Institute faced off for a heated debate Thursday night at the University of Utah.
"The gloves must come off," declared Sutherland director Paul Mero, in his opening remarks.
Mero insisted the two sides operate in two different realities: "truth and illusion."
"You play house as only a dysfunctional household structure can allow," he said to Equality Utah and its supporters. "You think a piece of paper magically bestows on you a marriage ... You think love, alone, makes a family."
Both sides rehashed arguments about whether being gay is a choice and whether gay and lesbian couples ought to be allowed to marry.
But Will Carlson, Equality Utah's public policy manager, pushed for common ground: his group's campaign for rights -- short of same-sex marriage -- for gay and transgender Utahns.
"Does disagreeing on one thing mean there's no agreeing on anything?" he asked. "This is appealing to the better angels of our nature. ... Most people agree that basic protections involving health care, fair housing and employment, and basic security for all couples are places where we can find common ground."
Neither side was declared the winner, but the debaters lobbed a few barbs back and forth.
Carlson criticized claims that granting legal protections, such as the right to sue in the event of a wrongful death, would put Utah on a "slippery slope" to legalizing gay marriage. Utah's constitutional amendment banning same-sex unions prevents that, he said.
"The slippery slope isn't an argument," he said, "it belongs on the playground."
Mero attacked Equality Utah's campaign strategy -- now failed, with all three Common Ground Initiative bills defeated by legislative committees. The group highlighted positive statements from the LDS Church that it does "not object" to certain rights for same-sex couples and also scored Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s endorsement.
"Do you seriously think that pressing the LDS Church by trying to publicly embarrass it is how you find common ground? ... Do you seriously think that publicly thanking Governor Huntsman means he'll fight for your cause against [the Legislature]? Mero asked. "Who draws up these plays for you guys?"
Sen. Scott McCoy, a Salt Lake City Democrat and sponsor of one of the Common Ground bills, concluded that the Sutherland Institute's presentation proved the opposite of Mero's opening statements.
"If anyone lives in a fantasy world, it is you, not us. ... It is not an illusion that people who are gay or transgender get fired from their jobs because they are gay or transgender," McCoy said. "The rest of us who live in the real world understand that these are real problems ... that affect real people, real families."