Friday, October 17, 2008

Connecticut Gay Marriage Win "Safe"

GayCityNews - Connecticut Gay Marriage Win "Safe": "'I'm scared,' Marino-Thomas said. 'If you've never given a dollar to the fight for marriage equality, now is the time to give money to the fight in California"

Connecticut Gay Marriage Win "Safe"

In the wake of Friday's marriage equality ruling from the Connecticut Supreme Court, advocates and legislative leaders are voicing confidence that the ruling is in little danger of being overturned by referendum, despite the fact that voters already face a November 4 ballot question whether the state legislature should call a constitutional convention next year.

"I definitely agree that we have a marriage equality majority in the legislature," said Michael P. Lawlor, an out gay Democratic member of the State House of Representatives from East Haven and the chair of the Judiciary Committee.

If voters approve the constitutional convention call, the legislature, known in Connecticut as the General Assembly, has a year to call one. It is within the General Assembly's sole prerogative to set terms by which they select delegates, and then those delegates have autonomy in terms of what matters they take up.

Democrats are close to having the two-thirds majority in both houses needed for the selection of delegates, but in any event marriage equality, Lawlor said, has significant bipartisan support.

Republican Governor Jodi Rell is opposed to marriage equality, but has no legal role in calling the constitutional convention.

"If there is a constitutional convention, it is much more likely to take up matters such as whether the right to healthcare should be incorporated into the state Constitution, or whether Roe v. Wade should become part of the Constitution," Lawlor said.

Anne Stanback, a spokeswoman for Love Makes A Family, the LGBT rights group in Connecticut, said that her group expects that the marriage equality majority in the General Assembly will grow as the result of the November 4 elections.

Lawlor, however, said that no matter what happens in November - and a reversal of Democrats' fortunes is certainly not expected - the marriage ruling should safe.

"If such a referendum were held in Connecticut," he said, referring to an anti-marriage ballot question, something not possible until after a constitutional convention, "voters would vote it down."

Lawlor pointed to a recent Quinnipiac College poll that found that about 20 percent of voters in the state oppose any legal recognition for lesbian and gay couples, but that the remainder support either civil unions or full marriage recognition, in about equal percentages. "Once you get past the issue of accepting homosexuality, it's pretty hard to argue against marriage for same-sex couples," he said.

Lawlor noted that Republican Congressman Chris Shays, a moderate who represents southwestern Connecticut and is in a battle for his politic life with Democrat Jim Himes, supports same-sex marriage; in fact, he said, the two candidates argue about which one is stronger on the issue.

Stanback acknowledged that the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization headquartered in New Haven, was identified this week as the largest institutional contributor to the effort to defeat marriage equality at the polls in California next month, ponying up $1.25 million. The group several years ago circulated anti-marriage petitions in parishes across Connecticut, but "many Catholics refused to sign," she said.

Lawlor said the high court's ruling caps a nine-year debate in Connecticut over same-sex partnership recognition and that the process the General Assembly has gone through has been helpful in educating legislators and voters and in building support for full marriage equality. In 2005, Connecticut became the first state to adopt civil unions without pressure from a court ruling. That law was signed by Rell, the Republican governor.

In 2007, Lawlor's Judiciary Committee, which includes about a quarter of the total House membership, approved a bill that would have upgraded civil unions to full marriage by a vote of 27-15. The full General Assembly never voted on the measure, but Lawlor said the votes were clearly there in the Senate and almost there in the House. Some of his colleagues told him they would come around on the marriage equality issue, but wanted civil unions to be in place a bit longer before making the move. Since that time, he said, a number of members, Democrats and Republicans, have told him they are prepared to take the next step.

Lawlor said that vote will still have to be made, since there must be a legal mechanism for couples in civil unions to have their status converted to marriage without their having to start over.

House Speaker James A. Amann, of Milford, and Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams, of Brooklyn - both Democrats - are marriage equality supporters.

Still, Stanback said Love Makes A Family is not complacent about protecting the new victory.

"We are taking nothing for granted and will work very hard between now and the opening of the new legislative session in January," she said. "With continued work, this decision should stand."

The October 10 victory came in a lawsuit filed in August 2004 by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a public interest law firm located in Boston, on behalf of eight gay and lesbian couples who had been denied marriage licenses in Madison, Connecticut. Each of the couples had been together for between ten and 30 years, many of them raising children. The defendants were the state Department of Public Health, which supervises marriage registration, and the Madison town registrar of vital statistics.

In June 2006, Judge Patty Jenkins Pittman found that excluding same-sex couples from marriage did not violate the Connecticut Constitution. GLAD appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court and, on May 14, 2007, the group's Ben Klein argued the case before the high court. The state attorney general represented the Department of Public Health.

It took the Supreme Court 17 months to render its decision.

"In an historic decision, Connecticut's Supreme Court ruled today that gay and lesbian couples in the Constitution State deserve marriage," GLAD said in a written statement. " Not domestic partnerships or civil unions, but full and equal marriage and the respect and security that only marriage provides."

"Today's victory fulfills the hopes and dreams of gay and lesbian families to live as full and equal citizens in Connecticut," Klein, the lead attorney, said. "Marriage is unparalleled in the dignity, respect, and protection it gives families."

Plaintiffs Beth Kerrigan and Jodie Mock, whose names are part of the case's title, said of the ruling, "We are overjoyed to tell our twin boys that we will be married, just like their friends' parents. We are profoundly grateful to live in a state which recognizes our equality."

In New York, the decision was immediately greeted with praise by gay marriage advocates.

"This is a huge win for marriage equality," said Cathy-Marion Thomas, executive director of Marriage Equality New York, a grassroots group. "It is a wonderful decision against civil unions."

Marino-Thomas said that the arguments made in the Connecticut majority opinion that civil unions are insufficient in delivering equality for gay and lesbian couples will strengthen the case in Vermont, New Jersey, and New Hampshire that the legal structures created there are inadequate and that full marriage rights must be substituted.

The increasing shift by New York State's neighbors toward marriage equality will also be helpful in Albany, she said, as the Senate next year, perhaps with a new Democratic majority, confronts the gay marriage bill already approved by the Assembly and supported by Governor David Paterson.

Marino-Thomas said that with California and additional states in the Northeast adopting marriage equality, there will soon be "a good base for a federal fight" over the Defense of Marriage Act, which precludes US government recognition of legal marriages in the states.

"Now New Yorkers can drive across the border to a second state, get a marriage license that will be recognized as legal and valid here at home, and have access to the vast majority of the 1,324 rights and responsibilities New York provides with it," said Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, New York's gay rights lobby. "While we realize that some families will do this because they need the protections right now that come with a marriage license, we believe that our families should not have to leave our home state to get married."

A New York state appeals court in February ruled that legal gay marriages from other jurisdictions should be recognized here, and, in May, Paterson directed all executive branch agencies to develop procedures for complying with that ruling.

"The State Assembly, Governor Paterson, and a majority of New Yorkers agree it is time" to act, Van Capelle continued. "The State Senate needs to get the message and act now."

Marino-Thomas voiced concern that the Connecticut ruling might spur greater right-wing contributions to the effort to overturn the recent California marriage equality ruling in the November 4 referendum. Gay rights advocates this week warned that the anti-marriage forces have raised more than $25 million versus just under $16 million by those working to protect the court ruling, and that polling has recently swung against the marriage equality side.

"I'm scared," Marino-Thomas said. "If you've never given a dollar to the fight for marriage equality, now is the time to give money to the fight in California."

©GayCityNews 2008

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