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Ho, Hum…. (Washington Passes Full Domestic Partnership Law)

April 17th, 2009 1 comment

In a story that attracted little attention outside of the state (except on gay news websites), the Washington State legislature on Wednesday gave final approval to a bill that expands the state’s existing domestic partnership registry to grant same-sex couples the same benefits as married couples. Opponents have sprung into action, but have little chance of undoing the legislation in a state that’s prepared to take at least this step.

What does it say about the state of the marriage equality movement when “virtual marriage” has become the compromise norm in a growing number of states? (New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon and California now have laws approximating marriage for same-sex couples.) And it’s a norm that elicits a collective “ho, hum” from all but the most apoplectic equality opponents. It’s still not true equality, of course. I recall hearing Andrew Sullivan say, a few years ago, that these “virtual equality” laws are really “pure” discrimination. That’s exactly right: Once equality of benefits is granted, all that separates the two “classes” is status, or a kind of legal caste. Here’s one opponent of the domestic partnership legislation, in a comment posted to the Seattle PI’s website:

“Your [sic] not equal. You’ll ALWAYS be two same sex people who THINK they have what I have being MARRIED to one man for 27 years. You will never be equal to me.”

She might have added: “So, there!” But she’s right, as long as the law continues this separation. Further, this verbal foot-stamp is in fact no different from that of more sophisticated equality opponents. Consider Maggie Gallagher’s statement, speaking of why civil unions were better (from her perspective) than marriage:

If the 15 words “Marriage in the United States is exclusively a union of one man and one woman” are placed in our Constitution, we can point to those who claim civil unions are marriages and say with confidence, “Not in the United States.”

So, there!

It’s likely for this reason that courts have started to look much more closely at arguments that civil unions and domestic partnerships don’t satisfy equality guarantees built into state constitutions. This is from the Connecticut Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision, Kerrigan v. Commissioner of Public Health: “Despite the truly laudable effort of the legislature in equalizing the legal rights afforded same sex and opposite sex couples, there is no doubt that civil unions enjoy a lesser status in our society  than marriage.”

To even more pointed effect, In Re Marriage Cases (from California): “[R]etaining the designation of marriage exclusively for opposite-sex couples and providing only a separate and distinct designation for same-sex couples may well have the effect of perpetuating a more general premise—now emphatically rejected by this state—that gay individuals and same-sex couples are in some respects   “second-class citizens” who may, under the law, be treated differently from, and less favorably than, heterosexual individuals or opposite-sex couples.”

Of course, these courts are correct. So are the civil union commissions in both Vermont and New Jersey, both of which came to a conclusion even Sarah Palin could understand (if not articulate): Civil unions don’t confer equality. Yet I’m starting to like civil unions and domestic partnerships. They’re training wheels, of a sort; not for the couples, but for the larger society. By granting formal recognition and the (state-conferred) benefits of marriage to gay couples, they bring us much closer to equality in the short term, and simultaneously give root to the idea that these couples pose no threat to marriage. Soon thereafter, the citizens become more confident; the training wheels are removed, and full marriage equality is achieved. It’s already happened in Vermont, and I expect it to happen in New Jersey and New Hampshire soon.

Civil unions? Domestic partnerships? Ho, hum… in the short run.

Three Acts on Prop 8: III (A)

March 6th, 2009 No comments

So here we are: It appears very likely that, on or before June 5, 2009, the California Supreme Court will uphold the “right” of California voters to pass Prop 8, taking away a right — the right to marry — that the court had barely more than a year ago deemed fundamental. (Under California law, the court must decide the case within three months of oral argument.) This was a substantial risk that those filing the suit took, and many believed that this legal terrain would have been best left unmapped.

I don’t agree, because I think that the court’s decision, assuming I’m right in my prediction, will underscore that we have substantial work to do to win  “hearts and minds.” The reality that this struggle will continue to be difficult hit home immediately after last November’s elections: While they’re already being forgotten in the California-consumes-all-energy frenzy surrounding Prop 8, initiatives in several other states were also blows to the marriage equality movement. In Florida, for example, more than 60% of voters uncharitably passed an amendment restricting not only marriage rights but other forms of relationship recognition. It remains to be seen how broadly the law will be interpreted.    
But there is plenty of good news, too. As the always eloquent and perceptive Hendrik Hertzberg observed at the time, these measures had the feel of a “last stand.” His piece is required reading for those inclined to despair at recent (and upcoming?) developments and setbacks. Marshalling the pile of relevant polling data available as well as marriage developments in Massachusetts and Connecticut, he argues that the public’s view of gay rights and relationships is moving inexorably in a progressive direction.

He’s right, and things have only moved more briskly since last November. Indeed, Prop 8 may ultimately be remembered not because of its radical removal of fundamental rights from a “suspect class,: but because of the cascade of dormant activism it unleashed. In a post later today, I will offer a review and assessment of the legal, social, and political work that has been done since the dawning of the Age of Obama. As you’ll see, things are getting better.