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Marriage battle heats up in Connecticut; Bill extending marriage to be introduced

by Julie A. Weisberg

Equal marriage advocates are gearing up for what could be an intense battle over a proposed bill to extend marriage rights to Connecticut's same-sex couples.

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.

."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. There is only one system in the country, and it is marriage."

-Evan Wolfson,
Freedom To Marry

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 the New England state 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 Friday. "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.

"I think we can get her to change her mind," Stanback said, adding that "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 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 state-wide in hopes of killing the new bill.

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. The FIC did not immediately respond to an e-mailed interview request for this article.

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.

An update from New Jersey

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

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.”


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."

Evan Wolfson, founder and executive director of the national equal marriage organization Freedom to Marry, agreed.

"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."

He added that while same-sex civil unions are "better than nothing," they fall far short of the "more easily understood system" of civil marriages.

"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," Wolfson said. "And I think our opponents have no answer to that question."

Freedom to Marry Week

All next week, same-sex couples and equal marriage supporters will hold events to take part in "Freedom to Marry Week," which runs from Feb. 11 to Feb. 17 — with "Freedom to Marry Day" on Feb. 12. The week-long celebration, began 10 years ago when Wolfson 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 stop on Feb. 17," he said. "But, it is another opportunity to have the all important conversations that help people move toward fairness."

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.

"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 in Connecticut are now planning to finish the job of providing full security and respect to the committed same-sex couples and their kids in Connecticut ... 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.


Originally published on Saturday February 10, 2007.

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