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Marriage equality advocates gear up for battles in New England, other states

by Julie A. Weisberg

PageOneQ: Marriage battles take shape in New England, other states

Equal marriage advocates in Connecticut and Vermont are gearing up for what could be an intense battle over proposed bills to extend marriage rights to the states' same-sex couples.

Although both states allow their gay and lesbian residents to enter into civil unions, equal marriage advocates there say the unions, while a welcome first step toward marriage, fall far short of full equality.

"It all comes down to one question: Either civil unions and marriage are the same, in which case why do we need two lines at the clerk's office, or they are not the same, in which case, what is the government withholding, and why should it," Evan Wolfson, founder and executive director of the national equal marriage organization Freedom To Marry told PageOneQ. "And I think our opponents have no answer to that question."

Connecticut

Late last month, same-sex marriage advocates announced that they would be submitting an equal marriage bill to the state legislature.

An update from New Jersey

In nearby New Jersey, equal marriage advocates there are keeping a close eye on the events in Connecticut.


Steven Goldstein
Garden State Eq.
And Steven Goldstein, board chair of the LGBT rights grass roots organization Garden State Equality (GSE), told PageOneQ that there is a chance New Jersey and not Connecticut, might end up being the second state after Massachusetts to pass a same-sex marriage bill into law.

New Jersey passed a same-sex civil unions law late last year. Same-sex couples there will be able to file for a civil union for the first time beginning Feb. 19. But according to Goldstein, New Jersey lawmakers have acknowledged that civil unions fall short of marriage equality. In fact, GSE's Web site says the state has created a commission to look into the inequality between civil unions and civil marriage for same-sex couple.

Because of this momentum and lawmaker support, marriage advocates feel it is possible to pass an equal marriage bill through the New Jersey state legislature within the next two years.
Goldstein pointed out that both houses of New Jersey's state legislature are controlled by Democrats who are expected to support a civil marriage legislation. And, unlike Connecticut's Gov. Rell, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine has said he would sign an equal marriage bill if it reaches his desk.

"In New Jersey, we are uniquely positioned," he said of equal marriage success. "We have all the ingredients here

-J.A.W.

If successful, the bill —which has yet to be drafted, but is expected to be filed with the General Assembly's judiciary committee later this month by Democratic state Senator Andrew McDonald and Representative Michael Lawlor — would be the first time a state legislature has considered and passed equal marriage legislation without pressure from a state court system. McDonald and Lawlor, who both serve in the state assembly as openly gay men, are the Democratic co-chairs of the judiciary committee.

Equal marriage advocates in Connecticut say while it's still too early to say for sure, they do think that the bill will have enough votes for approval in the state legislature.

"These things have a life of their own and the momentum will build," Anne Stanback, executive director of the Connecticut marriage equality coalition Love Makes a Family (LMF), told PageOneQ. "It will be a push, but I think we've got a shot."

Connecticut Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, however, who signed the state's same-sex civil union bill into law in 2005, has threatened to veto any equal marriage legislation that reaches her desk.

But Stanback said she thinks that if the governor were to meet "with the people who would be affected by the law," she could be swayed to move away from her promise of a veto.

Freedom to Marry Week

All last week, same-sex couples and equal marriage supporters held events as part of “Freedom to Marry Week,” which ran from Feb. 11 to Feb. 17 — with “Freedom to Marry Day” on Feb. 12.


Evan Wolfson
The week-long celebration, began 10 years ago when Evan Wolfson — founder and executive director of the national equal marriage organization Freedom to Marry — and other gay marriage activists were looking for a way to encourage gay and lesbians to reach out to others, particularly the non-gay people in their lives, to talk about why the freedom to marry matters, why its denial is wrong, and to ask for their help.

Wolfson said they specifically chose the February time period to allow organizers to hold events in conjunction with Lincoln’s birthday and Valentines Day, “to reflect the ideas of equality and love, which adds up to the freedom to marry.”

“And it’s been quite successful in triggering hundreds of hundreds of events all across the country, in which people take action. Of course, every week needs to be freedom to marry week until we have won the freedom to marry. It doesn't’t stop on Feb. 17,” he said. “But, it is another opportunity to have the all important conversations that help people move toward fairness.”

-J.A.W.

"I think we can get her to change her mind," Stanback said, adding "history will look back favorably" on the Rell if she were to sign the equal marriage bill into law.

"This is a legitimate civil rights movement," Stanback said. "And we will keep submitting this until we win."

Same-sex marriage opponents appear to be equally committed in their quest to stop the passage of any civil marriage legislation here.

Both sides of the marriage debate held a rally in the state capital of Hartford on Jan 31 to kick off their campaigns. And the two groups also plan to hold rallies at the state capital later this month. LMF will meet at the state capital for a special lobbying day on Wednesday, Feb. 21. And the grassroots organization will also hold its annual fundraiser "Eat, Drink and Be Married" — which features residents hosting individual dinner parties for friends and family members — on March 21.

The opponents, led by Brian Brown of the Family Institute of Connecticut (FIC), have also begun to mobilize statewide in hopes of killing the new bill.


Brian Brown, Connecticut Family Institute

Brown has called for the state's constitution to be amended to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. He has also demanded Connecticut lawmakers allow residents to vote in a statewide, non-binding referendum on gay marriage.

In addition, many equal marriage opponents have argued that since state civil marriage licenses would not be recognized by the federal government, same-sex couples would not gain any additional benefits over those now granted through Connecticut's civil union law.

But Stanback said this is not a valid reason to deny same-sex couple marriage equality.

"While it's true couples — after we gain equal marriage in Connecticut — won't immediately get federal rights and protections, they will have standing to challenge the so-called [federal] Defense of Marriage Act. And, this is just the first step, it will probably take years for that federal law to be ruled as unconstitutional, which we believe it will, but this is the first step," Stanback explained. "The other reason is the issue of equal treatment under the law. The word 'marriage' is significant, universally understood. It has meaning for same-sex couples as it does for heterosexual couples ... and we are saying we should be treated equally, and take down the barriers that exclude us."

Mr. Wolfson agreed.


Stamford, CT Mayor Dannel Malloy presides over the civil union ceremony of Deborah Smith and Laura DeNardis. The two obtained the civil union on the first day they were availale in the state, October 1, 2005.
"Civil unions are pointedly, deliberately not marriage. It is a withholding of the vocabulary, the symbolism — the rich emotional resonance — and the clarity, that everyone knows what it is, that come only with marriage, and not civil unions," Wolfson said. "There is only one system in the country, and it is marriage."

Vermont

Vermont's state legislature is also expected to consider an equal marriage bill.

State house and senate sponsors announced earlier this month that they would be introducing same-sex marriage legislation this legislative session. If approved, the bill would allow the state's gay and lesbian residents to legally marry, while also protecting the rights of Vermont's clergy to refuse to perform same sex marriages on religious grounds.


State Rep.
Mark Larson
D-Burlington

The bill's lead house sponsor, Representative Mark Larson of Burlington, submitted a similar bill last year, "An Act to Protect Religious Freedom and Eliminate Discrimination in Civil Marriage," but it failed to make it out of the legislature's judiciary committee.

This year, Larson told PageOneQ he is hopeful that by reintroducing it, the proposal will make it out of committee. He said so far, the bill has garnered the support of 35 house and 10 senate sponsors.

According to Larson, there have been organized efforts to bring equal marriage to Vermont for about a decade.

The first equal marriage bill that was submitted to the Vermont state legislature was, like Connecticut in 2005, amended to legalize civil unions, as opposed to marriage, in 2000. And so, Larson is hoping to harness some of the longtime-movement's growing energy and numbers.

"I'm optimistic that the momentum is building to provide marriage equality in Vermont," Larson said, adding that he had no timeline of when the bill would move forward during the current state legislative session.


Gov. Jim Douglas
(R-Vermont)

Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas has said he believes that the civil unions law is sufficient, and has yet to lend his support to the bill or an equal marriage debate in the state legislature. And recent press reports have claimed that the bill is not expected to successfully pass through the house and senate this year. Critics of the bill have, like Connecticut, called for a statewide referendum on equal marriage.

But Larson remains optimistic of the equal marriage movement in Vermont, citing the state's historical record of being progressive on human rights issues.

"Vermont has a history as a civil rights leader," he said. "We have a history of being involved in civil rights issues," he said.

Larson added that because Vermont is a smaller state in both size and population, it allows residents to pass on and share their personal stories with others more easily. And the more people hear these personal stories from same-sex couples, he said, "the less they buy in to any of the arguments against" equal marriage.

"We still have a state where person to person contact carries a lot of weight," Larson said. "Things have changed in Vermont and across the country since civil unions were passed."

He said civil unions are "no longer the radical thing to do," but are considered a more "moderate" position in the equal marriage debate

"The discussion has moved," Larson said. "Our responsibility is to demonstrate in Vermont, equality matters."

Two tracts to equality

Carisa Cunningham, public affairs director of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), said the move to introduce and pass same-sex marriage legislation at the state level is an important tract toward equal marriage's success, and runs parallel to the movement's well-publicized legal victories and ongoing court cases.


Carisa Cunningham
Gay and Lesbian
Advocates & Defenders

"We support both tracts," she said.

GLAD, which filed and won the lawsuit that led to Vermont's civil unions law in 2000, has appealed a decision by Connecticut's New Haven Superior Court in the equal marriage lawsuit Kerrigan and Mock v. Department of Public Health.

The court ruled last July that the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage does not constitute a violation of the state's constitution since, the court argued, there are no meaningful differences between marriage and civil unions. GLAD originally filed the lawsuit in August 2004 on behalf of eight couples who were denied marriage licenses.

In its appeal, GLAD lawyers have argued that "the denial of marriage by the 2005 civil union law is arbitrary and fails to provide gay and lesbian citizens with the equal treatment the constitution requires," according to a press release posted on its Web site.

Cunningham, however, is optimistic that the GLAD appeal will be successful.

"We're lucky to live in New England, (whose residents are) open to discussion and willing to make the change," she said.

Wolfson said the equal marriage and civil union gains in New England states have been important steps toward the movement's ultimate goal of federal same-sex marriage rights.

"It helps the American people see with their own eyes that nobody's hurt and nothing is taken away — the gays don't use up all the licenses — but, some families are better off," he said. "And so, it puts the lie to the right-wing's gloom and doom. And it gets people more used to the idea that lets them think anew and move toward fairness. It is very important."

Wolfson added, however, that New Englanders must not get complacent. And that they have an important role to play in the continuing struggle for LGBT rights.

"I think that it's terrific that the legislative leaders ... are now planning to finish the job of providing full security and respect to the committed same-sex couples and their kids ... New England, historically a leader in liberty, must not stop short of finishing the job. New England needs to provide the example. And the right thing to do is to end the discrimination in marriage," Wolfson said.

Other states move forward

But the equal marriage movement is also gaining momentum outside of New England.

In New Jersey, equal marriage advocates there are keeping a close eye on the events in nearby Connecticut, as well as Vermont.

Steven Goldstein, board chair of the LGBT rights grass roots organization Garden State Equality (GSE), told PageOneQ that there is a chance New Jersey and not Connecticut or Vermont, might end up being the second state after Massachusetts to pass a same-sex marriage bill into law.

New Jersey passed a same-sex civil unions law late last year. Same-sex couples there will be able to file for a civil union for the first time beginning Monday, Feb. 19. But according to Goldstein, New Jersey lawmakers have acknowledged that civil unions fall short of marriage equality. In fact, GSE's Web site says the state has created a commission to look into the inequality between civil unions and civil marriage for same-sex couples.

Because of this momentum and lawmaker support, marriage advocates feel it is possible to pass an equal marriage bill through the New Jersey state legislature within the next two years.

Goldstein pointed out that both houses of New Jersey's state legislature are controlled by Democrats who are expected to support civil marriage legislation. And, unlike Connecticut's Gov. Rell, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine has said he would sign an equal marriage bill if it reaches his desk.

"In New Jersey, we are uniquely positioned," he said of equal marriage success. "We have all the ingredients here."

Maryland also has a growing equal marriage movement.

According to Equality Maryland's Web site. Baltimore Circuit Court Judge M. Brooke Murdock ruled last year that the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage is unconstitutional.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the case to the courts along with Equality Maryland, presented arguments in December to the state's highest court that "the denial of civil marriage violates the equal rights, due process and equal protection clauses of our state constitution," and Equality Maryland press release says.


Dan Furmansky
Equality Maryland

Dan Furmansky, Equality Maryland's executive director, told PageOneQ that while equal marriage advocates there are hopeful that the court will rule in favor of same-sex marriage, "if the court does not do the right thing," a group of Maryland legislators have said they will submit an equal marriage bill to the state assembly.

"We never would have pursued litigation if we didn't think we could win," Furmansky said. "But there is always the possibility of a punt to the legislature."

And, he said, while public opinion polls on equal marriage in Maryland not as high as in states such as California and Massachusetts, it is moving in the right direction.

"The support grows with time," he said.

In December, California's Supreme Court announced it would decide if excluding same-sex couples from marriage there is a violation of the state's constitution. Earlier that month, California State Assemblyman Mark Leno announced that he intends to introduce the "Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act." A similar bill was introduced in 2005.

"The 2007 bill remains nearly identical to AB 849, which was passed in 2005 by the senate 21-15 and by the assembly 41-35," according to a recent Equality California press release. "It amends Section 300 of the Family Code to define marriage as a civil contract between two persons instead of a civil contract between a man and a woman, and again reaffirms that no religious institution would be required to solemnize marriages contrary to its fundamental beliefs."

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the 2005 bill.




Equal marriage advocates in Rhode Island said earlier this week that they intend to submit a series of bills to the state legislature there that not only propose legalizing same-sex marriage, but extending some of the same rights granted to the state's married heterosexual couples. By submitting several bills, the advocates say, they are hoping to make small legal gains if the equal marriage bill fails to pass, as expected.

Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri, a Republican, has said publicly that he opposes same-sex marriage, and recent press reports have said that both state Democratic and Republican leaders remain opposes to same-sex marriage.

And while equal marriage gains in New York state have been stymied by court decisions against same-sex marriage — the state's highest court ruled that it was not a violation of the state constitution to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples last July — the state's new governor, Democrat Eliot Spitzer, has stated he supports legalizing same-sex marriage in New York.




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Originally published on Tuesday February 20, 2007.


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