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Marking Equality Milestones in DC, Maryland

March 3rd, 2010 No comments

Today we mark another milestone on the superhighway to full equality, as DC began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The District joins five states, and, although progress has otherwise slowed for the time being, who can seriously doubt that before long this struggle will be in the rear-view mirror?

There’s always something to drag it down, though. Although the Catholic Archdiocese in D.C. didn’t carry through on its empty, bullying threat to leave the city (and the many poor and homeless it serves) were the law to take effect, it did pull this stunt:

[A]n important change to [Catholic Charities] group health care benefit plan…will take effect on March 2, 2010 due to a change in the law of the District of Columbia. [T]he existing health coverage of current employees will not be affected…. New employees and current employees requesting revisions in benefit coverage will be affected by this change.

Catholic Charities will continue to honor the health plan coverage that current employees have as of March 1, 2010. As of March 2, a new plan will be in effect that will cover new employees and requests for benefit changes by current employees….[S]pouses not in the plan as of March 1, will not be eligible for coverage in the future.

Read their lips: No new spouses — gay or straight. That’s one way of complying with the law allowing same-sex unions. Another, more humane approach that would also have allowed them to stick to their principles would have been to allow each employee to designate one other adult for coverage (isn’t this fairer anyway?), or just to give each employee a certain number of health care insurance dollars to spend. That Catholic Charities instead chose to freeze out every newly married couple strongly suggests that the Church wanted to have its principles and its money, too. This is the cheaper alternative, but of course the Church doesn’t even cite that plain fact.

Well, sorry to spoil the party. It really is a great day in DC, and derivatively in Maryland, as well. As Chris Geidner authoritatively reported last week, that state’s Attorney General recently opined that the state’s supreme court, were it called upon to decide the issue, would rule that out-of-state, same-sex marriages should be recognized. Thus, just as New Yorkers may go to any of several neighboring jurisdictions to marry (CT, MA, VT, or a place called “Canada”), so too may Maryland residents (Marylanders? Marylandites?) now cruise into nearby DC, get married, and then call themselves married back home. The importance of this right hasn’t been sufficiently appreciated. While it’s a nuisance to get them in MD and NY, marriage rights are now available in seven states, as well as in DC.

The slog towards equality continues. As the next post shows, though, it doesn’t run in an unbroken line.

The Catholic Church in D.C. Outdoes Itself

November 12th, 2009 No comments

Just this morning, I was at thinking that it might be time to write a few words in praise of the Catholic Church. Of course, it’s hard for me to do that given (1) my own history as a conscriptee (until old enough to opt out); (2) the Church’s stand on same-sex unions; and (3) Pope Benedict XVI, whose public-health-defying pronouncements on the use of condoms are only the most visible evidence of his complete detachment from reality.

Yet the Church favors expanding health care to the poor, and has long offered a range of social services to underserved populations. I recall hearing Chai Feldblum, a rather insistent LGT rights advocate (who’s lately been tapped for a position on the EEOC), giving the Church props for its work with D.C.’s poor. (This is the thanks she gets for working with the Church on these issues.)

Yet it’s precisely those poor who the Church has just announced it’s willing to put at risk, and for the most offensive reason I can imagine. According to this story, if D.C. enacts  marriage equality legislation, the Church will pull its social services out of the District, thereby leaving 68,000 of the city’s poorest residents high and dry. (At least until another agency steps in; as Emma Ruby-Sachs reminds us, most of the money doesn’t come from the Church itself.)

Why would they do this, especially if the finished legislation retains the substantial “religious liberty” exemption that’s expected to be included in the next draft? Under that exemption, the Church could cheerfully discriminate against same-sex couples by refusing to do anything to facilitate or recognize their unions — such as renting space that they otherwise rent to any and all comers.

So what’s the problem? The Church is “afraid” it would have to extend health benefits to the legal, same-sex spouses of gays and lesbians under the law.

Where to start? It seems that the Church should welcome the chance to provide health benefits to anyone. Does it really want to take the position that someone should go without coverage rather than provide it? Is the Church’s commitment to ideological purity so strong that it swamps all other concerns?

It needn’t come to this. Why doesn’t the Church simply change its policy to allow any employee to designate one additional person to receive health benefits? (This would be fairer to all employees, btw.) The person could be anyone in need of health benefits: an elderly sibling, a poor friend, or…a same-sex partner. By recasting the eligibility criteria, the Church could both expand the pool of those covered and avoid doing something that its steely principles don’t otherwise allow.

I hope that someone reads this and considers such a move, but I suspect they won’t consider such a change. The Church has found a cudgel to use against marriage equality, and it won’t be inclined to think of something that could avoid the issue. Lawmakers should not be intimidated by the Church, though. Pass the bill, and then let the Church explain to the tens of thousands of homeless and other needy residents why it couldn’t find some way around its dogma, and why caring for them is less important than refusing to provide health benefits to same-sex partners.

You think the Church has a P.R. problem now?

“Will it Float”? DC Council Member Introduces Marriage Equality Bill

October 6th, 2009 No comments

I’ve used one of the most underrated recurring bits in TV history as my hook line above, as a melancholy way of noting some loss in the way I feel about David Letterman. (Here’s a blog site just for “Will it Float” episodes. One more reason to love the blog-0-sphere!) I might or might not have more to say about this; right now I’m trying to sort through it.

Anyway, the much-anticipated, inevitable bill that will create marriage equality in DC has just been introduced. It will pass, easily and overwhelmingly. The question is whether Congress will let it stand. I’ve written before on the intricacies of DC Home Rule, and by now we know that Congress let stand the earlier bill by which DC recognizes out-of-state gay marriages. But this is the real deal. Now let’s see what Congress does. Are the Republicans, in desperate search of an issue that can (finally) give them some traction, willing to gum up the works? And if they do, what stomach will the Democrats have for the battle?

DC About to Provide a Preview of Congressional Marriage Equality Debate?

April 10th, 2009 No comments

Even as Vermont was breaking through the Governor’s veto to enact a marriage equality law on Tuesday, the District of Columbia’s Council was voting unanimously (12-zip) to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. This was a preliminary vote; the Real Deal happens in early May. Then what?

The Home Rule Act of 1973 gave the District some long-overdue autonomy, but Congress couldn’t resist retaining a veto for itself: As set forth on the DC Council’s website, “Congress reviews all legislation passed by the Council before it can become law….” This could make for an interesting summer.

Note, first, that this isn’t the marriage equality bill: The council  members support equality, but are sticking a tentative toe into the whirlpool of Congressional politics. If this gets through, expect a full equality bill on its heels. So, what might happen to this trial balloon?

The easiest approach would be to, er, punt. This outcome seems to me likely. Here’s what one Congressman had to say in 2007 about approving DC’s  needle-exchange program: “You know, I came here to be a member of the United States Congress. I didn’t come here to be a member of the D.C. City Council.” Inasmuch as the Dems control everything in Congress right now, all but the most blood-red state Republicans might sit this one out, deferring to home rule and avoiding the merits of the debate.

Or they might take the advice of right-wing pundits like Michael Goldfarb and use the opportunity to make their (blue dog?) Democratic colleagues squirm. But will they squirm? It seems that either  side can use, as convenience dictates, arguments about home rule and about federalism (although, strictly speaking, this isn’t federalism as DC’s status has always been unique — and, more to the point, it’s not even a state).

But moderates in Congress might not find it necessary to avoid the merits. If marriage equality itself is directly up for discussion,we’ll get a good sense of where lawmakers stand, and likely a first read on the likelihood that the Defense of Marriage Act might be repealed sometime soon.