The Republican leader of the US state of Utah has said he backs civil unions for gay and lesbians.

According to opinion polls, 70% of Utah citizens oppose civil unions.

In 2004 the state constitution was altered after a state ballot was approved that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Governor John Huntsman said that in his opinion that ballot measure does not need to be changed to allow civil unions, though he is not in support of gay marriage.

He said he wished to “do a better job in enhancing equal rights for more of our citizens.”

Nearly 60% of Utah residents are members of the Church of Jesus and the Latter Day Saints, known as Mormons, and the Church has a strong influence on the state’s culture and attitudes.

Last November the LDS Church urged Mormons to do all they could to support Proposition 8 in California.

It removed the rights of same-sex couples to legal marriage in the state and was approved by 52% of voters.

The church donated staff time and other resources to efforts to pass the amendment.

LGBT rights group Equality Utah and pro-equality legislators in Utah proposed the Common Ground Initiative, a set of measures aimed at advancing equal rights for LGBT people.

The Initiative was designed as a response to statements by leaders of the LDS Church that it does not oppose civil unions or other measures aimed at moving LGBT people toward equality under the law.

It includes measures designed to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment and housing, provide benefits for State of Utah employees and their adult designees, provide inheritance rights and other protections to adults who enter into a declaration of joint support, and repeal part of an amendment to the state constitution that prohibits civil unions.

Governor Huntsman was elected for a second four-year term in November with 77% of the vote. He is a potential candidate for the Republican party’s Presidential nomination in 2012.

The Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest LGBT civil rights group, praised the Governor’s support for many of the ideas presented in the Common Ground Initiative.

“This is hopeful and inspiring news, and emphasises the reality that equality is not a partisan issue,” said HRC President Joe Solmonese.

“We’re thrilled that Governor Huntsman recognises that it’s simply the right thing to do to support equality.

“We hope that his support will help Equality Utah and fair-minded legislators advance the Common Ground Initiative, which is simply aimed at advancing equal rights for all Utahns by providing important anti-discrimination protections and other rights currently denied to LGBT people in the state.”
At present gay and lesbian couples can get married in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Civil unions that carry all the state rights of marriage are legal in New Jersey, Vermont and New Hampshire.

Gay marriage was legal in California between June and November last year.

The validity of Proposition 8 is being challenged in the courts.

Federal marriage rights were denied to same-sex couples by the 1996 Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA).

States are not required to “treat a relationship between persons of the same sex as a marriage, even if the relationship is considered a marriage in another state.”