House GOP huddles with lawyers on same-sex marriage
Options • Leaders seem to like the idea of sitting out same-sex debates for a year.
Published: January 31, 2014 11:37AM
Updated: January 30, 2014 08:44PM
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Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Attorney Gene Schaerr, center, enters the closed Republican caucus meeting, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014 with new Utah Attorney.General Sean Reyes, right. Schaerr is the attorney hired to work with the state to defend Amendment 3.

House Republicans huddled Thursday behind closed doors with the lawyers defending the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, emerging without any firm decisions on whether to avoid debating bills this year that affect marriage and gay rights.

But House Speaker Becky Lockhart said leaders are still strongly considering taking a time-out to wait for courts to rule on the issue, and leaders have said that may be the safest course to ensure any legislation doesn’t hurt the state’s position.

“Maybe we should take a step back and see how things go in the court,” Lockhart said after the closed caucus. “What is the right thing to do in terms of where we are in this process? Where we are right now is the court has it, so let the court deal with it.”

But a variety of legislation has been introduced or discussed that deals at least in part with same-sex marriage or gay rights.

That includes a constitutional amendment to ensure churches cannot be forced to participate in marriages that violate their religious views; a bill to prohibit housing and employment discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Utahns; and even a bill to allow an income tax form check-off to help fund the state’s legal battles through a “Marriage Defense Fund.”

House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said the caucus on Thursday did not discuss the content of such legislation, and took no formal votes on whether to pursue them.

Lockhart said state lawyers simply “updated us on where the case is and the steps potentially where it could go,” including an expected eventual trip to the U.S. Supreme Court. Lockhart said, “It could be quick. It could be years.”

Attorney General Sean Reyes and Gene Schaerr, the attorney hired to lead the state’s case, met with the caucus.

“We weren’t advising them or mandating to them — just providing information,” Reyes said afterward.

The state has a Monday deadline to file its brief with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on its appeal of U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby’s Dec. 20 ruling that Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

Utah’s oral argument is scheduled for April 10, and the same panel of that court will hear a separate, similar case from Oklahoma on April 17.

Reyes said both states plan to file reciprocal friend-of-the-court briefs in each other’s cases. He said the court “may decide them in a single decision, we don’t know that.”

Lockhart said she feels lawmakers were impressed with Schaerr. “He’s a very impressive person,” Lockhart said about Schaerr. “I think the attorney general has a very impressive team.”