Same-Sex Couples Seek Marriage Rights
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
The battle over legal benefits for same-sex relationships will be fought in at least seven state legislatures next spring with supporters and foes of recognizing gay relationships planning to introduce opposing legislation.
Lawmakers in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Wisconsin will propose legislation to expand the rights of same-sex couples, and at least four states, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Ohio and Texas, will debate measures that would bar the state from recognizing gay marriages.
The most ambitious proposals will be in Connecticut and Massachusetts, where lawmakers will introduce same-sex marriage bills that if passed, would make these the first states in the country to grant gay and lesbian couples the same marital status and benefits available to heterosexual couples.
"Granting marriage to gay and lesbian couples would constitute full equality and equal treatment under the law," said Arline Isaacson of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.
Lawmakers in both states will also introduce proposals to create civil unions, under which gay couples could receive some state-level marriage benefits, but would not get access to the 1,400 federal benefits that come with marriage. These benefits include Social Security retirement benefits, filing a joint Federal Income Tax return and the right to take time off work to care for seriously ill family member.
Vermont is the only state with a civil unions statute, passed in 1999. Unlike marriage, civil unions are only recognized by the state that grants them.
"The term marriage has legal status- civil unions are not portable, your rights end at the state line, and when you cross that you become legal strangers as far as the law is concerned," said Anne Stanback, president of Love Makes a Family, a Connecticut gay-rights coalition backing the same-sex marriage bills.
Political experts in Massachusetts and Connecticut say a civil unions bill might pass, but it is unlikely that either legislature will pass a law granting full marriage rights to gays and lesbians.
A citizens group in Massachusetts has submitted a petition to the legislature calling for a referendum on adding an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage. Before the constitutional amendment can be put to a referendum, 25 percent of the legislature must approve the ballot question in two consecutive legislative sessions.
The legislature adjourned in July without voting on the amendment initiative, which will die on December 31 if no action is taken. Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift has asked the state Supreme Judicial Court if she must call the legislature into session before the end of the year to vote on the issue. A response from the court is expected this week.
"They (legislators) violated the constitution and their oath of office by not responding to the initiative amendment process," said Brian Diver, spokesperson for Massachusetts Citizens for Marriage (MCM), the organization that collected the signatures to propose the amendment. "The whole purpose of an initiative is to circumvent an unresponsive legislature, and they went out of their way to adjourn and not even deal with it."
Diver said that MCM does not oppose same-sex people choosing to live together or receiving some legal benefits, like health care or hereditary rights.
"We're not taking rights away from anybody, we're just trying to honor the rights that come automatically with marriage, because if you take those rights away marriage means nothing," Diver said.
Stanback said that she expects conservative legislators in Connecticut to propose similar legislation, commonly called Defense of Marriage Acts (DOMA), in response to the gay marriage proposals.
Thirty-six states have passed DOMA laws or constitutional amendments that define marriage as a union between men and woman, and forbid the state from passing same-sex marriage laws or recognizing such laws from other states.
The Texas legislature is considering a law banning same-sex marriage. The measure was defeated last year, but a Republican dominated legislature was elected in November and the head of the state Republican Party said that passing the legislation is the party's highest priority.
The Ohio legislature will probably take up a DOMA bill next session that stalled in committee this year.
Connecticut passed a law earlier this year that lets gay couples empower each other to make medical decisions in cases of sickness and death. Attached to the law was a provision mandating that the legislature's Judiciary Committee conduct a study of the public policy implications of granting civil unions and marriage rights to same-sex couples.
The results of the study will be released by the end of the year and advocates anticipate that it will provide support for the upcoming civil unions and marriage bills.
Three states grant limited benefits to domestic partners, including Connecticut, California and Hawaii. In Hawaii and California, gay couples can receive some of the spousal benefits of marriage, like access to a spouse's healthcare and pension.
New Jersey lawmakers are drafting a law that stops short of recognizing gay marriage, but would sanction some of the state benefits that marriage allows for couples that register their relationship as a domestic partnership. The bill will probably include health benefits, hospital visitation rights, medical decision making designation and the right to a partner's pension.
California has a similar registry for domestic partnerships that gives gay couples 13 of the legal benefits reserved for married people. Lawmakers will likely introduce legislation next spring expanding domestic partnerships to include all of the state-level benefits of marriage, which number over 500.
Wisconsin lawmakers are also working on a domestic partnership bill, but have not yet specified what kind.