On Wednesday evening, Connecticut’s Democratic-led House of Representatives passed a comprehensive civil unions bill that, according to its proponents, would extend the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples without contradicting the state’s marriage law.
Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell has indicated her strong support for the concept of civil unions within the context of legislation that strictly defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
Last week, Connecticut’s Senate, in a debate that generated little attention, passed the bill by a 3-to-1 margin. By the time the legislation reached the House, however, e-mail messages and telephone calls from groups on both sides of the matter were flooding representatives’ offices.
On Tuesday evening, Rell requested that Democratic Attorney Gen. Richard Blumenthal review the legislation and ascertain if its passage would open the door to full marriage equality for gays and lesbians.
By Wednesday morning, Blumenthal issued a four-page opinion which he spoke of later in the day to news reporters. “If the governor is concerned about authorizing same-sex marriages,” said Blumenthal, “she can sign this bill with a high degree of comfort. Emphatically, unequivocally, without any doubt, this law in no way would permit same-sex marriages in Connecticut.”
“Many lawmakers firmly believe that if the attorney general is correct in his opinion, an amendment to reaffirm that marriage is between a man and a woman only makes the bill stronger,” said Rell, according to The Stamford Advocate, adding, “I do not disagree.”
Connecticut’s readiness to accord legal recognition to same-sex couples, albeit less than full marriage equality, indicates the New England state’s willingness to thwart a recent national trend to outlaw same-sex marriage and related reforms. If Rell signs the civil unions bill, it will be the first time a state enacted a civil unions law without being ordered by a high court to do so. In 2000, Vermont passed a civil unions law and in 2004 Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriages. The legislatures in both states were ordered by their respective high courts to recognize same-sex relationships with rulings that stated that the respective state constitutions did not prohibit same-sex marriage.
Vermont’s civil unions law was considered a revolutionary achievement for the gay rights movement, but in the last five years, particularly following a national debate to amend the federal Constitution to ban the recognition of same-sex marriages, many gay marriage proponents consider civil unions to be a fallback position for lawmakers, particularly those unwilling to take on far-right opponents of gay rights, that creates a “separate but equal” status.
One Connecticut lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Evelyn Mantilla, a lesbian, said that she opposed the civil union bill for just that reason, especially because of its “DOMA,” or defense of marriage, language, adding, “I will hold out for full equality at some point in the future.”
Mantilla was referring to an amendment that passed on Wednesday stipulating Rell’s request to define marriage as a heterosexual-only institution. Another successful amendment specified that in order to enter a civil union, partners must be at least 18-years-old.
Some representatives were intent to attach an amendment to the bill that would, as Rell has indicated, prohibit lawsuits that would thrust the matter of same-sex marriage before the state’s courts and also preclude the future legalization of same-sex marriage.
It is unclear whether Rell will sign the bill.
With the legislation’s outcome in little doubt among the 148 voting representatives present, Wednesday’s House debate centered around the marriage preclusion amendment. Following the amendment’s passage, debate continued into the evening, with lawmakers availing themselves of the allotted time to publicly declare their positions on what was shaping up to be a more historic spectacle than the Senate version.
A Democratic assistant majority leader, John Thompson, a supporter of the bill, said, “I for one do not know God’s providence for our sexual orientation, but the gay lifestyle is not evil,” adding, “God would not mar any human being.” Thompson said that “poverty in our state and our world,” and its detrimental effects on children, is a far greater “moral issue” than people’s sexual orientation.
Various Republicans lined up to announce their opposition to the bill. Rep. Debralee Hovey, who once favored civil unions, announced her newfound opposition. “I have struggled with this vote for several weeks, months, whatever,” said Hovey, who said that after recognizing that her “district overwhelmingly voted for Bush and his family values agenda” she changed her mind in order “to represent my district.”
Another Republican, T.R. Rowe, decried the bill’s description by its proponents as a civil rights measure. “If this is in fact an argument about civil rights, then open it up to all,” Rowe sarcastically declared, mentioning gay “polygamists.” But “beyond the three-men argument” said the lawmaker, constitutional flaws within the legislation threatened to force lawmakers “to clean up the damage formed by that loose end in the repeal of the amendment earlier.” Rowe was apparently referring to another more stringent DOMA amendment he favored than the one that passed.
Rep. Julia Wasserman asked the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Michael Lawson, how the bill would apply to prisoners who inhabit the “800-bed, level-4 prison” in her district and that she “needed to get back to the warden on this.” Lawson replied that just as prisoners have a right to get married, they would also be able to enter civil unions, adding “but prisoners don’t get the right to live in marital bliss.”
One Republican who supports the bill, Sonya Googins, said that “homosexuals have existed since the beginning of history” and that passage of the bill would “prove to be far more innocuous” than its opponents had indicated.
Lawson fielded other legislative queries from colleagues, ranging from questions about the public accommodations law, which includes language prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians, to a religious carve-out amendment to indemnify religious organizations that oppose homosexuality. An amendment containing such a provision failed.
By 8:30 p.m. the House approved the civil union bill by a 85-to-63 margin.
In other states this week, the Maryland Legislature passed domestic partnership legislation that would accord 11 rights to registered unmarried couples, including hospital visitation, medical decision-making and the ability to share a room in a nursing home. The bill joins two other gay rights measures—a bill including sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s hate-crime law and a tax exemption for domestic partners when amending a property deed—delivered to Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich who has 30 days to act on the legislation.
In Massachusetts, lawmakers are considering legislation to repeal an obscure 1913 statute—enacted to prevent interracial marriages—that bars issuing marriage licenses to people prohibited from marrying in their home states. Three other bills, introduced by a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage, Democratic Rep. Emile J Goguen, would ban same-sex marriage and prohibit a civil unions option; nullify all same-sex marriages performed since 2004; and remove Chief Justice Margaret Marshall and three other justices of the Supreme Judicial Court who voted in Goodrich v. Massachusetts to legalize same-sex marriage.
In Oregon, Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski said he favors a law allowing same-sex couples to form civil unions. Also, the state’s Supreme Court said that on Thursday it will hand down a ruling on the validity of nearly 3,000 marriage licenses issued last year to same-sex couples in Multnomah County.