ST. GEORGE — Utah lawmakers are considering a bill that defines legal personhood and prohibits governmental entities from granting or recognizing legal personhood in certain categories of nonhumans.

Rep. Walt Brooks speaks about HB 249 during a Senate committee hearing, Salt Lake City, Utah, Feb. 5, 2024 | Screenshot image courtesy from Utah Legislature video, St. George News

Specifically, HB 249, titled “Legal Personhood Amendments,” prohibits granting legal personhood to any of the following: artificial intelligence, inanimate objects, bodies of water, land, real property, atmospheric gases, astronomical objects, weather, plants, nonhuman animals and “any other member of a taxonomic domain that is not a human being.”

Bill sponsor Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, said the idea behind the bill first came to him by way of a concerned constituent.

“I honestly just laughed,” Brooks said as he spoke about the bill during a House Business and Labor Committee meeting on Jan. 23. “I thought it was silly that we’d have to identify what a person is.”

However, after doing some research online, Brooks said he was able to find multiple instances around the country and internationally, where attorneys have been utilizing personhood status as a legal mechanism, particularly in cases involving environmental protection.

In one case, he said, a river in Brazil has been granted personhood status, meaning anyone who harms the river can be held liable.

“It’s just, in my opinion, completely inappropriate,” Brooks said. “Because we value animals. We value our rivers and streams, wetlands, whatever it may be, our lakes. And there’s ways that we can preserve them and go forward, but trying to mix in the idea that it’s actually a human person is not appropriate.”

Nan Seymour, who was representing the nonprofit group Save Our Great Salt Lake, was among those who spoke against the proposed bill during the committee hearing.  

After noting that more than 1,200 residents had gathered at the State Capitol the previous weekend to show their support for the lake, Seymour said, “As a center of our ecosystem, Great Salt Lake has an inherent right to live, flourish and be replenished. Across the world, as mentioned, people have chosen to legally establish and defend these basic rights for ecosystems.”

Photo sows a lakebed of the Great Salt Lake, date not specified | File photo courtesy of Kat Dayton, St. George News

Seymour said the legal personal rights granted in such cases are similar to those that have been granted to corporations. 

“When these grant rights are granted, nature flourishes and thrives,” she said. “And then, so does everyone.”

Also speaking against the bill was resident Sadie Braddock, who said, “This proposed bill would also end any discussion of what it means to give the Great Salt Lake a voice in legal systems, such as through legal guardians that represent the lake, through recognition that the Great Salt Lake also has an intrinsic right to exist, such as just as humans do.”

Brooks later clarified the intent behind the bill, saying it was not meant to be about the Great Salt Lake at all.

“It was just the sheer fact that state after state, and all over the world, we’re seeing people abuse the situation of personhood, to use it as a weapon,” he said. “It’s just not appropriate. I think we need to identify just like we have done with ‘What is a boy?’ ‘What is a girl?’ There’s going to come a time if we don’t get ahead of this that we’re going to have the same arguments we had in the past.”

Just before making the motion to give the bill a favorable recommendation, Rep. Jeff Burton, R-Spanish Fork, said that he and his colleagues are committed to saving the Great Salt Lake. 

“We love the resources in this state,” Burton said. “And we understand the impacts of drought and of humans on that ecosystem and we’re committed to doing everything we can within reason to save that lake. Some things we don’t control, such as what falls from the sky. But I can assure everyone listening, that we care deeply about the Great Salt Lake and we do everything in our power to save that body of water.

“Having said that. I differ in this argument toward the laws of nature and the laws of personhood toward an inanimate object. The English language very clearly defines what a person, place or thing is.”

The measure was given a favorable recommendation by the House Business and Labor Committee on Jan. 23 by a vote of 13-1-2, with Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, casting the lone nay vote. The following week, on Jan. 30, it passed the House by a vote of 58-11-6.

Then, on Feb. 5, the measure was considered by the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee, who advanced it by a vote of 2-1-3. 

“It really is quite a big issue,” Brooks said during the Senate committee hearing. “It’s happening all over the country and it’s something that we need to identify and clarify in our code.”

The measure has since moved to the Senate’s calendar, where it advanced from the second reading to the third reading on Wednesday by a vote of 18-5-6.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2024 Utah Legislature by clicking here.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2024, all rights reserved.