Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Lawmakers to review civil union revisions

The Advocate - Lawmakers to review civil union revisions

By Brian Lockhart
Staff Writer

Published March 15 2008

A state General Assembly committee is to revisit the state's civil unions law Monday, while a decision from the state Supreme Court about the legality of denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples is pending.

The legislature's Judiciary Committee has scheduled a public hearing on a bill co-chairman Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, said is meant to "clean up" technicalities and loopholes in the state's 2005 civil union law.

The Family Institute of Connecticut, a nonprofit group that opposes gay marriage, is warning on its Web site that the proposed legislation would "open the door" to same-sex marriage in the state and is urging members to oppose it.

The group also takes offense on its Web site to the bill being considered during the week before Easter and the hearing scheduled for St. Patrick's Day.

A McDonald-sponsored bill to legalize gay marriage passed the Judiciary Committee last year, but McDonald and co-chairman Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, pulled it from consideration by the full General Assembly after determining it did not have enough votes to be approved.

In May, the state Supreme Court began hearing the case of eight same-sex couples who were denied marriage licenses. Its decision is pending.

The civil unions bill being considered Monday has multiple parts.

One section would require commissioners of consumer protection, insurance, public health and revenue services, and the chief court and probate court administrators to study the problems encountered by civil union partners when seeking benefits.

"What the bill is centrally stating is we want various state agencies to review their processes and facilitate reforms necessary for implementing legal protections afforded to partners in a civil union," McDonald said. "There's still an institutional ignorance of the legal impact civil unions have in the state."

For example, he said, many state forms still offer "single," "married," or "divorced" as the only check-off options.

McDonald said the intention is to address more severe issues, such as the recent case of a Hartford woman who was not allowed to have her partner cremated after she died of cancer.

"The funeral home said only the next of kin could sign" the paperwork, McDonald said.

The bill to be considered Monday would also extend the rights of civil union partnerships to out-of-state couples moving into or visiting Connecticut.

Currently, same-sex couples who have entered into civil unions - or marriage, in the case of Massachusetts - do not have legal recognition in Connecticut despite the state's condoning civil unions.

State Rep. Claudia "Dolly" Powers, R-Greenwich, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said opponents are warning her that McDonald and other bill proponents want to begin recognizing gay marriages from Massachusetts so they can push for legalizing marriage in Connecticut.

"If that's what it does, I would be a 'no' vote on that," Powers said.

McDonald said a married same-sex couple from Massachusetts would be recognized as a civil union under the proposal.

"We're not saying, we're going to treat a gay marriage in Massachusetts as a marriage in Connecticut," McDonald said. "All it's saying is you're not going to be caught in the legal limbo of having a relationship recognized in one state but not in Connecticut. . . . We're going to recognize it as a civil union in Connecticut."

McDonald said he can find many practical reasons for recognizing out-of-state same-sex unions.

"You have a gay couple, married in Massachusetts, driving to New York City. They get in an accident. What happens to them?" McDonald said. "They don't have control over hospital decisions. If one's in a coma and on life support, you're not qualified as the next of kin to make health care decisions. If one dies, you don't have the right to claim the body. The list just goes on and on."

Anne Stanback, executive director of Love Makes a Family, a nonprofit group advocating legalized marriage for gay couples, said some members of her organization plan to attend Monday's public hearing to argue that civil union "fixes" don't go far enough.

"You can't really fix civil unions," she said. "The only way to give same-sex couples full protections and full equality is with marriage. We appreciate that they're trying to do everything that they can, but for us the bottom line is civil unions are an inadequate substitute for marriage."

Stanback said she has no idea when the state Supreme Court will rule on the same-sex marriage case.

"It could be next week. It could be in the summer or the end of the year," Stanback said. "People are always asking me, 'Have you heard any word?' "

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