Last week Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican who is serving his second term and does not plan to run for a third, surprised political observers by announcing that he supports civil unions for same-sex couples. This was a turn-around for Huntsman, who in 2004 backed Amendment 3, which added a clause to the state constitution that, in addition to declaring that "marriage consists only of the legal union between a man and a woman," says "no other domestic union may be recognized as a marriage or given the same or substantially equal legal effect." Gay rights activists had given up on a bill to repeal that second part of the amendment after concluding there was no chance the legislature would approve it. Huntsman's endorsement probably won't change that bill's prospects.

The governor's reversal may reflect his true feelings. "He had to be dragged to the altar of Amendment 3," a spokesman for the socially conservative Sutherland Institute told The Salt Lake Tribune, "and everyone has known since then that Governor Huntsman would rather be nice than right." Then again, the civil union endorsement may be part of a plan to move toward the center as Huntsman prepares to run for president in 2012. Or it could be a little of both.

In saying yes to civil unions but no to gay marriage, Huntsman is taking basically the same position as our current Democratic president, the Republican he beat, the Republican he succeeded, and the Democrat who came before that. (All favored allowing gay couples to make most, if not all, of the same legal arrangements as heterosexual couples, and all opposed calling the relationship "marriage"; sometimes they also questioned the "union" label, but it's not clear this quibble amounted to a practical difference in policy.) There's a reason this stance is so popular: It leaves a lot to the imagination. Depending on the details, the difference between a civil union and a marriage may be substantial or semantic (as it essentially is in California, where opponents and supporters of Proposition 8 nevertheless fought passionately over the word marriage in the last election). It's not even clear that most Utah voters, who supported Amendment 3 by a 2-to-1 margin in 2004, disagree with Huntsman's position. While a recent Tribune poll found that 70 percent of Utahns "oppose civil unions," in a Deseret News survey "47 percent of those polled supported civil unions compared to 42 percent who did not." I'm guessing the question was worded somewhat differently in the two surveys.

While same-sex unions are considered a lost cause in Utah for the time being, the prospects for banning discrimination against homosexuals in housing and employment appear to be much stronger. In other words, Utahns are more inclined to abridge freedom of contract and association than they are to require that the government treat citizens evenhandedly. Clearly they did not read my recent column on this subject. They may also have missed my columns advocating the separation of marriage and state or, short of that, a change in the terms of the debate that could help end it.

[via The Freedom Files]