By Robert Gehrke
| The Salt Lake Tribune
Utahns who are attacked or threatened by a dating partner would be able to go to court and seek a protective order keeping the partner away under a bill that passed the Utah House on Friday.
The passage of HB50 did not come without a fight over whether the new dating protective order should extend to same-sex couples.
An amendment, offered by Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, would have defined dating as a precursor to marriage. But because Utah prohibits same-sex couples from marrying, supporters of the measure argued that gay and lesbian couples would not be protected under Christensen’s proposal.
"I reject the institutionalization of discrimination that is present in this [amendment]," said Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, the sponsor of the bill. "What this amendment does is say we offer protection if Sally were to commit an act of violence against Bob or Bob against Sally, but we don’t care if Jane hurts Sally."
Christensen denied his bill had anything to do with sexual orientation and that he was only trying to make a statement in favor of "public morality" in the bill.
"If they’re going to talk about a dating relationship, it recognizes there is such a thing as public morality," Christensen said. "We don’t look the other way and say there aren’t standards that apply to any situation prior to marriage."
Legislative attorneys had cautioned that, if the amendment was interpreted to not extend protective orders to same-sex couples, the courts could find that the bill violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.
The House rejected Christensen’s amendment by a large margin on a voice vote and went on to pass Seelig’s bill by a comfortable 61-11 margin, sending it to the Senate.
"Yes this is needed. Yes there is a gap. Yes people are dying because this is not available," Seelig said.
Between 2004 and 2011, Seelig said, 15 Utahns were killed as a result of dating violence.
"This is a dark corner of our state we haven’t had the opportunity to talk much about," said Ned Searle, who serves on the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.
The measure allows anyone age 18 or over in a dating relationship and who has been the victim of violence or a threat to obtain a dating protective order that lasts 180 days. Violations of the order are punishable as a class B misdemeanor.
Gun rights groups had opposed the bill initially, fearing that a gun owner that is the target of a protective order could have gun rights restricted. However, a protective order issued to a dating partner does not restrict gun rights under federal law, as a cohabitant partner or spouse would.
Rep. David Lifferth, R-Eagle Mountain, said he supported the bill, but encouraged anyone who has been the victim of violence or is fearful for his or her safety to take additional steps.
"Take the necessary steps to protect yourself," said Lifferth. "You should file a restraining order. You should also get a concealed carry permit and a handgun and the necessary training to defend yourself until law enforcement arrives."
Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, argued there were already existing remedies for assaults or rapes under the law and the requirement of going to court for a protective order puts overburdened judges in the position of being "dating mediators."