SALT LAKE CITY -- Republican Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who governs one of the country's most conservative states, said Tuesday he supports civil unions for gay people that would give them many of the same legal rights as married couples.

Utah has a constitutional ban on gay marriage and domestic unions that was approved by voters in 2004. At the time, Huntsman said he supported Amendment 3.

"I had many discussions about Amendment 3 with many legal experts who informed me that individual rights, equal rights, could be taken up to the level of civil unions without compromising traditional marriage, which is something I believe in," Huntsman told The Associated Press in an interview. "I believe in the traditional definition of marriage, but I also believe that we can do a better job in enhancing equal rights for more of our citizens."

A gay rights group is pushing a series of bills this legislative session called the Common Ground Initiative that seeks additional civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Utahns.

Huntsman said Tuesday he supports the initiative.

"I'm delighted that he's come out and said that," said Utah's only openly gay state senator, Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City. "I think Gov. Huntsman made his statements and took his position on civil unions because he thinks it's right, and that makes him more of a leader than a politician."

One of the bills in the package called for repealing the part of the constitutional amendment that bans domestic unions, but the bill's sponsor dropped the bill Friday after opposition from conservative lawmakers who control the Legislature.

The governor's support for civil unions was not made public until this week, when a Huntsman spokeswoman told The Salt Lake Tribune for a Tuesday story that he supports civil unions and many of the ideas in the Common Ground Initiative.

However, Huntsman said he isn't advocating for the ban on domestic unions to be repealed.

"I don't know that that needs to be done. It may need to be clarified, over time, by way of the courts, but I think there was a pretty broad level of interpretation from the beginning that certain areas equating in enhanced equal rights would be allowed under Amendment 3," he said.

Huntsman is the most popular governor in state history and is increasingly speaking out on moderate issues such as global warming that make many conservatives in the state cringe. For Huntsman, there is little political risk because he has pledged not to seek a third term.

"It seems he's more concerned with what people outside the state of Utah think of Utah than he is with what people inside Utah think," said Jeff Reynolds, spokesman for the Sutherland Institute, which opposes civil unions. "It would certainly appear that there's some political aspirations to blend more into mainstream national politics with these kind of statements."

Huntsman isn't new to gay rights issues. Soon after taking office in 2005, he backed a failed bill that would have granted mutually dependent couples certain health care and property rights.

However, that bill's sponsor says Huntsman has gone too far with his most recent comments.

"I'm very disappointed in the governor's stance. Civil union is really tantamount to marriage," said Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights. "It's gay-marriage light."

Gay rights advocacy group Equality Utah praised Huntsman.

"We are very grateful for Gov. Huntsman. We think it's fantastic. It also highlights that people who feel very differently on marriage can find common ground on areas to agree on," said Will Carlson, the group's public policy director. "Utah has been getting an unfair reputation in the national media as being anti-gay because of those actions of a few individuals. This highlights that Utahns have a diversity of thought that and that they can follow their religious beliefs and still take care of others."

Huntsman, like 80 percent to 90 percent of lawmakers, belongs to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Utah has been targeted by some for a tourism boycott because of the Mormon church's involvement in a recent California proposition that overturned a state Supreme Court ruling that allowed same-sex marriage.

Following the November election, the church issued a statement that Equality Utah has made the focus of its campaign for gay rights in Utah.

"The Church does not object to rights for same-sex couples regarding hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights, or probate rights, so long as these do not infringe on the integrity of the traditional family or the constitutional rights of churches," the church said at the time.

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On the Net:

Equality Utah: www.equalityutah.org