Utah GOP Lawmakers Blame Outrage Over Rape Comments on the Press

Posted By on February 5, 2015

Utah GOP Representatives Curt Oda (left) and Ken Ivory (right)

Utah Republican Representatives Curt Oda (left) and Ken Ivory (right)

After one of their own faced a severe backlash this week for implying that having sex with an unconscious spouse isn’t really rape, some Utah Republican legislators are circling the wagons—blaming the outrage on the media.

Utah state representative Brian Greene (Republican – Pleasant Grove) touched off a firestorm this week when he commented on a proposed law that clarifies that sex with an unconscious person is always rape. “If an individual has sex with their wife while she is unconscious … a prosecutor could then charge that spouse with rape, theoretically,” said Greene.”That makes sense in a first date scenario, but to me, not where people have a history of years of sexual activity.”

Those comments have gone viral, appearing everywhere from the Salt Lake Tribune and Utah Political Capitolto The New York Times,  and the Daily Mail in London.

Greene walked back his statements in a private email to all of his fellow lawmakers Wednesday evening. He apologized for “any embarrassment to this Body that my statements have caused.” And said that he was simply trying to demonstrate “how changing that statutory language by removing the element of consent might have some unintended consequences.”

But rather than siding with those who may have felt hurt or betrayed by the remarks, some of Greene’s Republican colleagues in the Utah House of Representatives replied (cc-ing all state lawmakers) that the blame for the outrage should rest with the press, rather than Greene.

“Don’t let it get you down. Media sensationalism,” said Representative Curt Oda (Republican – Clearfield).

“Media taking things out of context to sell papers,” added Representative Ken Ivory (Republican – West Jordan).

 

 

Democrats & Religious Leaders Announce Bill Creating “Religious Freedom Day” in Utah

Posted By on January 20, 2015

**Originally published on Utah Political Capitol**

Brian King RFDUtah House Democrats and local religious leaders held a press conference Friday afternoon to announce legislation designating January 16th in Utah as Religious Freedom Day, honoring the first religious freedom law in the country.

In 1786, the Commonwealth of Virginia passed into law the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom Law. It was written by Thomas Jefferson a year after he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and was ushered into law by James Madison a year before he became one of the principle authors of the U.S. Constitution.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom is widely regarded as the taproot of how the framers of the Constitution approached matters of religion and government, and was as revolutionary as the era in which it was written—during a time when the framers were fighting to create one nation out of 13 fractious colonies which were still finding their way after a successful revolt against the British Empire and contending with a growing and religiously diverse population.

The law disestablished the Anglican Church as the official church of Virginia, and provided that individuals are free to believe or not believe as they will and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” In other words, what you believe or don’t believe cannot be used as a litmus test by government or government’s agents to deny you civil services.

House Minority Leader Brian King (Democrat – Salt Lake City), who is authoring the legislation honoring the 229 year old law, along with Reverend Patty Willis of South Valley Unitarian, Pastor Curtis Price of the First Baptist Church, and Sheryl Ginsburg of the Jewish Congregation of Kol Ami, say it is important to remember that original meaning of religious freedom, because the rights the law proscribes are now being threatened.

“Religious Freedom means the right of individuals to believe or not believe whatever they choose, without the fear of powerful institutions dictating what they must think,” said King.

January 16th has already been set aside on the national level by Congress, who designated the day as Religious Freedom Day in 1992. It was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, and has been renewed by presidential proclamation by Presidents Clinton, W. Bush, and Obama each year since.

“Religious Freedom was designed as a shield to protect the rights of individuals over the rights of powerful institutions like the government or religions. What we are seeing now is a coordinated effort to strip individuals of their freedom, and tell them that government and governments’ agents can mandate what they need to believe in order to access civic services,” says King, alluding to recent attempts in various states to pass religious freedom laws that don’t necessarily align with the definition of religious freedom espoused by Jefferson and Madison.

HB 66 – Marriage Modifications, being proposed by Representative Jacob Anderegg (Republican – Lehi), was mentioned by King as an example of a bill opposed to the original definition of religious freedom. The bill is in response to the recent court cases which have allowed same-sex marriages in Utah. If successful, the legislation would allow any government agent empowered to perform civil marriages to refuse to perform a civil ceremony on the basis of faith (either the agent’s or the the couple’s). Under current Utah law, religious leaders are already exempt, and cannot be forced to perform religious ceremonies under any circumstances, but Anderegg’s bill would go a step further and exempt government officials as well. King, who is LDS himself, strongly disagrees and says there should be a bright line between religious leaders acting in their religious capacities, and government agents acting on official business.

“The right of individual conscience must be held paramount,” says King. “No citizen of Utah should ever be denied a governmental service because of their beliefs or non-beliefs, or because of the beliefs or non-beliefs of any governmental employee. No one who is Catholic should ever be denied service because a government agent is Baptist, no LDS person can be denied services because a government agent is Protestant. No Athiest can be denied service because a government agent is Evangelical. No person of Jewish faith can be denied services because a government agent is Catholic. We are a country founded on religious pluralism, where every individual has the right to choose what to believe and what to not believe.”

Copy of Representative King’s proposed legislation, which has not been submitted yet so does not have a bill file number:

 

Utah Religious Freedom Day HCR

A Most Sacred Trust – The Line Between Lawmaker & Paid Lobbyist?

Posted By on December 30, 2014

**This article was originally published on Utah Political Capitol**

Representative Ken Ivory (R) and his wife Becky recite the Pledge of Allegiance on the floor of the Utah House.

Representative Ken Ivory (R) and his wife Becky recite the Pledge of Allegiance on the floor of the Utah House.

Where is the line between acting as a lawmaker on behalf of your constituents, and acting as a paid lobbyist? As the 2015 legislative session draws near, one Representative on Utah’s Capitol Hill may be drawing near it.

On November 10, 2014, a new Utah nonprofit was registered under the name “A Most Sacred Trust,” its tax status was approved only 6 weeks later, on December 22. The group advertises its mission as being to “restore trust in our school system by educating children, parents, teachers, administrators, and legislators about the realities of sexual abuse in our schools and how we can protect both children, and the adults who educate them, by establishing a safer system for all”—a laudable goal, to be sure.

Their website, mostsacredtrust.org, encourages visitors to financially support the organization, accepting both one-time and monthly monetary commitments.

The group is also touting that they have three pieces of legislation that will be run in the 2015 legislative session, which begins at the end of January—no small feat when you consider the number of nonprofits, special interests, lobbyists, corporations, and citizens in the state which would love to have their agendas promoted with legislation, and that most bills take months of work, planning, and effort before making it onto the list of proposed laws to be heard.

So how did the fledgling organization manage to get their goals before the legislature so quickly? According to tax and business filings with the state, the president of A Most Sacred Trust is Becky Ivory, wife of Representative Ken Ivory (Republican – West Jordan). The organization was registered under the name of Representative Ivory’s personal law firm, Ivory Law P.C., and all of the group’s legislation is being run by Representative Ivory himself.

This isn’t the first time the Ivorys have created an organization related to the Representative’s legislation. Representative Ivory has developed a name for himself over the past few years by pushing legislation that would forcibly take control of public lands in the state away from the United States, and turn them over to the Utah legislature to decide whether to keep or sell them. The legislation has resulted in massive disagreements between supporters of a Utah-takeover of U.S. lands and environmental groups and scholars who say the constitution does not grant individual states the authority to force the U.S. to turn over land that is being supported by tax dollars from all over the country.

In the case of the public lands takeover, Representatives Ivory and Becky Ivory created another nonprofit, called the American Lands Council, where Ken serves as President and Becky as Communications Director—both draw a salary from the company, and Representative Ivory listed ALC as his occupation when he filed for re-election. As Representative Ivory’s legislation has caught fire in local and national media, it has opened the door for him to travel all over western states under the American Lands Council banner, giving paid speaking presentations to conferences, special interests, and other lawmakers. According to its most recent 990 forms, in 2012 the American Lands Council brought in just over $122,000 thanks largely to the publicity around Representative Ivory’s own legislation.

Is there an ethical issue with a lawmaker and his spouse creating situations where they directly make a living off of the legislation they run?

“I don’t see a conflict,” Representative Ivory told Utah Political Capitol in a phone interview. “My wife is a constituent, just like how several of my other constituents have organizations or businesses working on problems. My job is simply to solve the problems.” According to Representative Ivory, it makes no difference whether or not he and his family benefit financially from the issue.

To be sure, child sex abuse in schools is a worthwhile cause, and one very personal to Becky Ivory herself. On her biography on the Most Sacred Trust website, she describes how she herself was abused by a teacher for several years during Middle School. She told UPC “It took me 11 years before I was finally brave enough to go to my school district and tell them what had happened. … They fired [the accused teacher], but then hired them back two years later without even telling me or talking to me about it.”

Like Representative Ivory, Mrs. Ivory says she sees no conflict in having him run legislation that could directly benefit their family financially. Because the organization is so new, she says, there is not yet a steady stream of donations coming in, so for now it is an all-volunteer operation. “I wish there was a salary. Maybe someday,” she added. “If we can get more attention, then maybe we can get to that point.”

The Utah legislature’s rules about conflicts of interest and members financially benefiting from their own legislation are pretty murky. In fact, situations similar to the Ivorys’ have happened in the past, says House Speaker-elect Greg Hughes (Republican – Draper).

“We’ve had spouses involved in public policy before,” says Hughes, pointing to outgoing House Speaker Becky Lockhart (Republican – Provo). Speaker Lockhart’s husband, Stan Lockhart, lobbied for STEM digital learning programs as well as IM Flash Technologies while Speaker Lockhart was serving, earning them significant personal wealth between the two accounts. “We didn’t ban Stan from the Hill,” says Hughes. “As long as it’s disclosed and in the light of day, I don’t see a problem with it.”

But Representative Stephen Handy (Republican – Layton), who serves as co-chair of the House Ethics Committee, says the situation with the Ivorys’ new business could cause “a bomb” among his fellow lawmakers. “I don’t know if its an ethical violation or not. But we have to be really careful and be concerned about the public trust.” He also added that while he has a high personal level of respect for Representative Ivory, “as both a legislator and a citizen, I think the level of transparency is going to be a big question.”

The text and precise content of Representative Ivory’s legislation on behalf of A Most Sacred Trust is not yet publicly available, but Becky Ivory assured UPC that “there will be no [public] money allocated to [A Most Sacred Trust.]” However, if the Ivorys’ American Lands Council serves as a model, then the new legislation could drive a lot of public interest in the organization, which means higher donations and potentially new speaking engagements around the country, which means more revenue for the Ivorys, which means more legislation around the country, which means more revenue, etc.

Where’s the line between acting like an elected official and acting as a paid lobbyist? Does it make a difference if the cause is a really good one? Utah could be about to find out.

Same-Sex Marriage and the Assault on Religious Freedom

Posted By on October 25, 2014

**Originally published on Utah Politico Hub

Could religious organizations be forced to perform same-sex weddings? The hysterical panic surrounding an Idaho wedding chapel certainly seems to suggest so. But as always, if you’ll forgive the pun, the devil is the details and the story is little more exaggerated hype.

Conservatives have long used the fear of religious liberty being violated as a weapon against LGBTQ civil liberties. In Utah, that’s included claims that if same-sex couples were granted their constitutional right to civil weddings, the LDS church would be forced to perform same-sex weddings in temples or face massive lawsuits and government fines. But is religious liberty actually under attack, as we are being led to believe?

The short answer is yes. Religious liberty and religious freedom is being eroded across the nation, but not in the way we are being told.

Religious liberty is one of the founding principles of a nation that was born out of an escape from the state-imposed Church of England. It was designed to protect all individuals, allowing them to believe (or not believe) whatever they wished—giving us the freedom to choose to be Catholic, Baptist, LDS, Atheist, or any other set of beliefs we so choose—free from the power of institutions (like religions, corporations, and government) to force us to comply with imposed beliefs.

It’s a principle both liberals and conservatives hold equally sacred. And it’s why all citizens of Utah should be deeply concerned about proposals being made by lawmakers who want to exempt public employees and corporations from civil rights laws.

Representative Jacob Anderegg (R-Lehi) has announced that he will seek to write a new law that would allow public employees like county clerks to refuse to perform same-sex marriages if their religious beliefs say that being LGBTQ is a sin. It’s also expected that this coming legislative session will see a proposal for the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” a model bill being promoted by the right-wing Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund) in state legislatures across the country. The Act would allow private businesses, such as restaurants, to refuse service and/or employment to LGBTQ people if they feel their religious beliefs dictate they should do so.

Why should all religious and non-religious Utahns be terrified of such proposals? We’ve seen this all before. The same language was floated (and in some cases passed into law temporarily) back during the civil rights movement 50 years ago. White business owners claimed that their religious beliefs meant that they should have the right to put up “Whites Only” signs. County Clerks said their religious beliefs meant that they should have the right to refuse to marry interracial couples because they believed God found them to be an abomination.

We, as a country, rejected those nonsense arguments. We recognized that religious liberty meant the right of an individual to believe whatever they choose, but when you are acting on behalf of the government or when you are acting as a business, you must treat all people equally. You, as an individual, may believe that God finds interracial couples to be an abomination, but that doesn’t mean your business or your government has the right to violate that couple’s civil rights just because they believe differently.

True religious freedom relies on religious pluralism—the recognition that everyone in the country has the right to believe (or not believe) whatever they choose without fear of being persecuted for those beliefs.

Religions do not fall in that category. A religion has the right to set its own standards and rules. If the LDS Church chooses not to perform same-sex weddings, that is firmly within their rights to do so. But a restaurant or a car dealership isn’t a religion, and while the business owners may have personal beliefs, their business cannot act as a religion and violate the religious freedom of those who have different beliefs.

Exemptions beget exemptions. If Representative Anderegg’s proposal to hand out exemptions in the case of LGBTQ people is successful, there will be nothing to stop an Evangelical business owner to claim that their religious beliefs say that LDS people are sinful and fire all Mormon employees. There will be nothing to stop a male business owner from claiming that his religious beliefs say that women should always be subservient to men, and refuse any promotions to female employees.

Religious liberty is precious, and to be protected at all costs. But redefining that freedom from its true meaning, from a shield for individuals into a sword for institutions to wield, puts all of us at risk.

The hype around the Idaho Hitching Post wedding chapel is little more than a red herring, meant to scare us all into turning our eyes away from what is really happening. ADF may be screaming that the pastors of the Hitching Post are facing fines and jail time to gain media attention, but the city of Coeur d’Alene has repeatedly confirmed that no such threats were ever made, and even the ACLU has confirmed that the Hitching Post is a religious business, performing only religious ceremonies, and is completely exempt from non-discrimination laws.

Non-discrimination laws do one thing, they level the playing field for everyone—neither promoting nor disparaging individuals’ beliefs. Straight business owners cannot discriminate against people for being LGBTQ, and LGBTQ business owners cannot discriminate against people for being straight.

Despite the daily rhetoric we’re being flooded with, the battle for the meaning of religious liberty is not between Christianity and secularism, but between pluralism and authoritarianism. However strong their convictions may be, the Right’s campaign is less about religious liberty than it is about winning the government-backed right to impose their religious beliefs on others. The Framers called that tyranny.

Utah Social Security Finally Relents – Grants Same-Sex Couples Benefits

Posted By on October 14, 2014

After denying benefits to legally married same-sex couples for over a week, SSA is now calling the couples and telling them to come back in.

1,300 same-sex couples were married in Utah between December 2013 and January 2014, during the brief window where marriage equality was legal before the U.S. Supreme Court imposed a stay on Judge Robert Shelby’s ruling that banning the marriages was unconstitutional.

That stay left the couples’ benefits, including federal marriage benefits like Social Security, on hold. But as of October 6th, when SCOTUS rejected 7 marriage cases, including Utah’s, LGBTQ couples were once again free to marry.

But as we have reported, while state agencies were ordered to immediately begin processing benefits equally, the Utah Social Security offices continued to deny couples–even when threatened with a federal lawsuit.

Salt Lake City Social Security Offices

Late Friday, October 10th, one of the newlywed couples received an email from Sean Brune, Regional Commissioner for the SSA. In his email he said:

Today we published policy update RM10212.035, Evidence of Name Change based on a US Same-Sex Marriage. This update instructs our offices to accept marriage documents issued to same-sex couples for marriages that took place on 10/6/2014 or later by jurisdictions (town, county or State) in the State of Utah as evidence of a name change. We are still awaiting instruction on marriage documents issued in Utah prior to 10/6/2014.

In other words, SSA would now accept same-sex marriages in Utah for couples married on or after SCOTUS’ 10/6/2014 decision, but the 1,300 couples married earlier were still on hold.

It now seems that last restriction has been lifted. “I just received a call from the Salt Lake City [Social Security] office,” says Austin Vance, who delivered a letter threatening the federal lawsuit from his lawyer to the SSA offices last week. “They told me they have just released a new directive, and we can now go in, confirm our address, and they will issue us the new [Social Security] cards.”

Calls to several of the other previously-denied couples confirmed that they received similar calls.

Social Security has continued to refuse to comment on why or how the delay happened. Clerks had told the couples that they “needed to figure out the process,” but given that SSA uses a federal database that was updated 15 months ago to accommodate for legally married LGBTQ couples, that explanation makes no sense.

 

Eric Ethington has been specializing in political messaging, communications strategy, and public relations for more than a decade. Originally hailing from Salt Lake City, he now works in Boston for a social justice think tank. Eric’s writing, advocacy work, and research have been featured on MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, CNBC, the New York Times, The Telegraph, LGBTQ Nation, and The Public Eye magazine. He’s worked as a radio host, pundit, reporter, activist and electoral campaign strategist. Follow him on Twitter @EricEthington. He also writes at NuanceStillMatters.com

Utah Same-Sex Couple Threatens Social Security With Lawsuit Over Denied Benefits

Posted By on October 10, 2014

Same-sex married couples in Utah are still being turned away at Social Security offices statewide, despite five days passing since the U. S. Supreme Court decision which overturned Utah’s ban on those marriages. At least one of those couples is now threatening a federal lawsuit if they are not granted their legal benefits.

Austin and James Vance, who were legally married back in December of 2013, hand-delivered a letter today from their attorney to the Salt Lake City Social Security office, notifying them that if they did not grant their legal benefits, and issue them new social security cards as they are required to do for married couples, the office could be facing a federal constitutional rights lawsuit.

The letter, drafted by SLC attorney Danielle Hawkes, condemns the Utah Social Security Administration (SSA) for dragging their heels on an issue she says should have been resolved a long time ago.

“The law on this issue has been clearly established for fifteen months, giving the agency ample opportunity to correct its discriminatory practices. In June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor held that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional, […] On October 6, 2014, the United Supreme Court refused to hear Utah’s appeal of the Kitchen Herbert case. At that point, the 10th Circuit’s holding became law for the State of Utah. […]”

James and Michael Vance

James and Michael Vance

But instead of accepting the letter and issuing the benefits, the Vances were handed a written Memorandum from SSA, claiming that more time is needed to streamline procedures for issuance of SSA Cards, eligibility and benefits.

Hawkes says that’s nonsense. “The SSA system is federal, and it’s the exact same system as every other state that has already implemented these changes. … This is demeaning and demoralizing, plain and simple.”

After the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision late last year, the U. S. Department of Justice sent a memo that instructed all federal agencies to grant equal marriage benefits to legally wed same-sex couples. In Utah’s case, those benefits were put on hold for the 1,300 couples who married in December of 2013, while the Supreme Court weighed whether to take the case. But once the case was rejected by the high court, and the stay was lifted, benefits should have been immediately available.

The disparity in overseeing of federal benefits was also echoed by U. S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, (Democrat – California), in a letter to the Obama administration Thursday, writing, “same-sex couples who paid into the system like everyone else, or who served in the military, continue to be denied the equal benefits they have earned.”

An attorney for the SSA Friday refused comment other than to state that SSA officials will fully comply with federal guidelines and laws. The attorney refused, however, to say when that would happen.

“The bottom line here is that this is either a procedural issue, in which case it’s unjustified and needs to be corrected today,” says Hawkes, “or this is animus from Social Security, and that’s unconstitutional and needs to be remedied immediately.”

Utah Social Security Offices Still Denying Married Same-Sex Couples Benefits

Posted By on October 8, 2014

**Originally published by The New Civil Rights Movement and Q Salt Lake**

Several of the local Social Security Administration offices in Utah are still refusing to issue new Social Security cards to married same-sex couples, despite court rulings requiring them to do so.

Austin and James Vance, Dennis and Matt Gwyther, and Shelie and Ada Ingram have all legally married in Utah, and are entitled to all the benefits and responsibilities that come along with their marriages. But despite court rulings and instructions requiring state and federal agencies to comply and grant same-sex couples their benefits, they are still being rejected.

Austin and James Vance, who married in December of 2013, say that the Social Security offices’ refusal to issue new social security cards has created huge problems for them, including Austin almost losing a new job when he couldn’t provide a social security card with the same name as his newly-issued driver license. The couple also says their home loan also almost fell through for the same reason.

Austin and James Vance share a kiss after getting married. Photo by David Newkirk

Austin and James Vance share a kiss after getting married. Photo by David Newkirk

The Vances made an audio recording of their in-person visit to the Social Security office in suburban Salt Lake City yesterday. On the recording, the office’s representative says their continued requests haven’t been submitted yet, despite nine months’ worth of requests to do so. Austin pleads with the clerk, “We have a directive from the Supreme Court, we have a directive from the 10th Circuit, we have a directive from the governor and attorney general; the federal government has recognized my marriage since January, how can you still be denying us? This is not okay!” The clerk responds, “I understand, you’re more than welcome [to file a complaint], but we have no procedures to process these yet and we can’t process them until we get directions from Social Security.”

The Gwythers were given an almost identical response. Legally married back in December, the couple recorded a 20-minute phone call they had with the downtown Salt Lake City branch yesterday afternoon. “We’re still waiting for a final decision and instructions on that,” the clerk can be heard saying. “It’s going to take some time.”

Arnold Astorga, the Social Security representative who denied the Gwythers, tells them the office is “not allowed” to grant benefits to same-sex couples until they are instructed to do so by the attorneys in the regional office. He refuses to give the name or contact information of anyone at the regional office for the Gwythers to call and appeal.

Upon being informed of the situation, John Mejía, legal director of the ACLU of Utah, said his office may open a new investigation into the situation. “I have no idea why [the same-sex couples] are still being denied.”

Missy Larsen, chief communications officer at the Utah Attorney General’s office, says she’s shocked to hear denials are still happening. “There should be no reason for them to be denied whatsoever,” she said. “[The Utah AG’s office] has no authority over those social security offices, but [U.S. Attorney General Eric] Holder ordered all tax stuff recognized quite a while ago.”

Social Security offices fall under the purview of both the state and the federal government, which is what makes the denials so unusual. After the Supreme Court’s decision in the Windsor case in June of 2013, all federal agencies were directed to immediately process benefits for legally married couples.

Shelie and Ada went to the Social Security office in Ogden, Utah, yesterday. Supervisor Scott Schlotz told them that “Upper management needs to make a decision on how to process the paperwork so that it is legal.” Schlotz refused to give them a time-frame for when the “decision” would be made.

Requests for comment from the Salt Lake City and Ogden Social Security offices went unanswered.