Polarizing Utah state Sen. Chris Buttars — a fierce opponent of gay rights and a champion of drug treatment — dies at age 76

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) In this 2006 file photo, Sen. Chris Buttars discusses S.B. 96: Public Education - Instruction and Policy Relating to the Origins of Life. The bill passed 4-2-1.

Former state Sen. Chris Buttars, who sponsored Utah’s same-sex marriage ban and became one of the most polarizing figures in Utah politics, died Monday at age 76.

Buttars had long championed conservative social causes, fighting to restrict abortion in the state and opposing what he considered the homosexual agenda, crusades that made him a favorite of the Republican right.

“I’m going to tell you where I stand and I don’t want to know where you stand. You may not agree with me but you’ll always know where I stand,” Buttars said in his Senate floor speech when he retired in 2011. “It served me well but I’ve sure been in a hell of a lot of trouble.”

He was the sponsor of Amendment 3, Utah’s constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage and, according to Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, was instrumental in swinging the final vote in the Senate.

The amendment was struck down by a federal court in 2013, clearing the way for gay and lesbian couples to marry.

“I think he was one of the best state senators we ever had,” Ruzicka said Tuesday. “He was always consistent. He kept his word and you could count on him because what he said was what he did.”

Raised in rural northern Utah, Buttars was blunt and plain-spoken, and his comments often angered LGBTQ groups and others.

When the Democrats picked Scott McCoy to fill a Senate vacancy in 2004, a surprised Buttars blurted out, “The gay?” McCoy adopted it as his informal nickname.

Four years later, he created a stir when, while discussing a bill he didn’t like, he said, “This baby is black, I’ll tell you. It is a dark and ugly thing,” a statement that some perceived as racist, and compounded his problem when he called his critics a “hate lynch mob.”

A year after that, he did an interview for a documentary on California’s Proposition 8, referring to gays and lesbians as “the meanest buggers I have ever seen” and saying they were “probably the greatest threat to America going down I know of.”

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, an LGBTQ advocacy group, said Buttars’ passing “generates difficult emotions” in the community.

“His words and actions often targeted and maligned our families. In so doing, however, he inadvertently motivated us to work harder, live bolder and organize smarter,” Williams said. "With his passing, we recognize that the world is changing, and we hold the hope that old adversaries will become future friends. To that end, we wish the Buttars family peace and kindness as they mourn.”

Buttars said he got into politics in the 1970s when he ran for City Council because he was frustrated with the lack of sidewalks in his West Jordan neighborhood.

He was elected to the Utah Legislature in 2000 and served 10 tumultuous years before retiring abruptly in 2011, citing his own health issues and those of his wife, Helen. Buttars had long suffered from diabetes and died from complications related to the illness, Ruzicka said.

Ric Cantrell, who served as chief of staff of the Senate while Buttars was in office, said he was more complex than most people understood.

“He was not the caricature the left made him out to be,” Cantrell said. “He was complex and nuanced. He was hard right of Southern evangelicals on some issues and he was a bleeding heart on social programs and funding for people who were down and out.”

Buttars was a leading champion of funding for the Drug Offender Rehabilitation Act, a diversion program intended to get drug addicts into treatment and out of prison, and he repeatedly saved the program from the chopping block.

Sen. Pete Knudson, R-Brigham City, who shared Buttars’ northern Utah roots, said he respected Buttars for his candor and saying what was on his mind.

“He was just an everyday sort of guy. He was honest as the day is long. He spoke his mind as he felt he should and he was a great friend,” Knudson said. “I just loved the guy very, very much.”

Since retiring from the Legislature, Buttars kept a fairly low profile. He remained active in his church and wrote several books, including “The Tribes,” a science fiction novel loosely based on the biblical lost tribes of Israel.