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Buttars stands out as morals crusader

Published January 22, 2006 1:34 am

Be assured, where state senator goes, controversy follows
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

WEST JORDAN - At times it appears as if state Sen. Chris Buttars is two different politicians.

There is Buttars the Advocate who champions drug treatment programs, supports raising the minimum wage and fights to assist child crime victims.

And then there's Buttars the Conservative Crusader who has made mortal enemies of gay rights activists, atheists, evolution supporters and the American Civil Liberties Union.

But the West Jordan Republican says his views are consistent and come from one powerful source.

"A great deal of my political stands come from my faith," said Buttars, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "I represent the values that have always been America's morality."

Buttars' unwavering stands on what he calls "moral absolutes" have made him the state Senate's biggest lightning rod since he joined the body in 2001.

This session, he is sponsoring bills to ban gay support clubs from high schools and to require science teachers to tell students the state doesn't endorse the theory of evolution.

He has previously sponsored legislation banning gay marriage and requiring schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

Buttars resembles a bulldog with his tightly cut hair and short, thick neck. And he talks just like he looks. He's gruff, speaking in quick, clipped sentences. His passion is evident and his straight-to-the-point style is his greatest political advantage. It also occasionally gets him into trouble, say fellow senators.

Buttars is a lawmaker who doesn't avoid controversy, he starts it. And that stems from his view that those who oppose his morals have captured control of the country. That despite the fact that the White House, Congress, and a majority of state legislatures and governors are Republicans. Most Supreme Court justices also are appointees of GOP presidents.

"I don't think the conservative side of the aisle understands incrementalism and the liberal side does, and that is one way we got beat," he said.

He calls the 1960s the "apex of American experience" that has since been slowly eroded by anti-war activists, Democrats and gay people.

"The [government] has become totally hostile to moral and religious ideals," he said. And the self-proclaimed "floor warrior" has anointed himself the protector of those ideals.

"We can always count on him to support the moral issues," said Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Eagle Forum, a conservative morals organization. Since Buttars became a senator, he has formed a philosophical bond with Ruzicka, one of the more influential lobbyists on Capitol Hill.

The two have teamed up on Buttars' controversial proposals now working their way through the Legislature.

The Senate preliminarily approved Buttars' evolution legislation Friday and is expected to formally pass it Monday.

He believes science teachers overstep their bounds by linking men to chimpanzees, while ignoring other possible theories.

The vast majority of scientists disagree with his take on evolution.

"Evolution of species is one of the generally accepted theories in science," said Larry Madden, president of the Utah Science Teachers Association. Other major science organizations agree with the Utah association, such as the National Academy of Sciences, the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes the respected journal Science.

Buttars still says legitimate scientists have credible disagreements about the evolution of man. "The scientific community is not in consensus on any of it," he said.

Buttars relishes such confrontations, but no issue gets him going like gay rights.

At the Eagle Forum convention earlier this month, Buttars spoke at length about his views on gay people.

"They're everywhere. They're getting into everything," he said. "The homosexual community is going to undermine society."

He wants to rid Utah high schools of the 14 or so Gay-Straight Alliances, which he considers "conditioning" clubs, bent on teaching "impressionable minds" that being gay is acceptable.

"If you read the homosexual rule book, you'll find their greatest target is your kids," Buttars told the Eagle Forum crowd.

Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City, calls Buttars "misinformed and misguided." As Utah's only openly gay senator, McCoy is offended by Buttars' claim that gay people have no morals.

"He has the inability to see gay and lesbian people as the family next door," he said. "For some reason, his mind fixates on 'Oh my god, what kind of sex are you having?' It's absurd."

McCoy, a lawyer who publicly battled Buttars' gay marriage ban, argues the federal Equal Access Act protects such gay support groups. And he said these clubs are not discussing sex acts. "Part of it is to stop harassment, part of it is to end the isolation of these students," McCoy said.

Buttars said he is now the target of a "gay conspiracy" because of his stand against gay rights.

Some of the same people behind the shadowy political action committee Truth in Politics, which led a smear campaign against Salt Lake County Republicans last year, have turned their attention to Buttars.

Craig Tassainer and Lance Peacock, upset over Buttars' push to ban gay marriage, have made repeated claims that Buttars used the Utah Boys Ranch, a nonprofit school for troubled youth, for politics in a way that violated federal tax law. Buttars recently retired as the school's executive director.

But their formal complaints have gone nowhere.

Despite the long-standing animosity, Buttars said he has "homosexual friends," though he refuses to name any.

He stops short of calling McCoy a friend, but says he "respects" him. "That man stands up for what he believes in."

That's a change from when Buttars first heard that McCoy had been appointed to fill a vacant spot in the Senate. He reacted incredulously, saying "the gay?"

McCoy now has a personalized license plate memorializing Buttars' quote. They both find it amusing.

"Sen. Buttars and I get along very well," McCoy said. "Probably 85 percent of the time on issues, we are on the same page."

Many of these are social issues involving minorities, the poor or drug addicts.

One thing his supporters and detractors agree on is that Buttars has no ulterior motives. He is pushing a political agenda out of conviction - not to gain power or prestige.

"He is courageous," said Provo Republican Sen. Curt Bramble. "Whether you agree with him or disagree with him, you have to respect his passion."

Buttars' wife, Helen, is not too interested in the controversy, contention and phone calls that her husband's political stands attract. For his wife's sake, Buttars will not run for any leadership posts in the Senate and says he will not seek re-election when his term ends in 2008.

He is already dreaming of going on an LDS Church mission with his wife.

But before then, Buttars has a few remaining moral issues he wants to tackle. His "to do" list includes three items, though Buttars refuses to identify them.

He does make one promise: "They will be as hot as anything I've done."

mcanham@sltrib.com

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Tribune Reporter Patty Henetz contributed to this article.

Buttars outside the Legislature

* He reads one classic book each summer, though he doesn't always like them.

* He built the large stone fireplace that anchors his home office.

* Since he retired, he enjoys an afternoon movie on a Monday when he and his wife can have the whole theater to themselves.