Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Good news!

Human rights have taken a step forward in Vermont: This morning, in an historic act, both houses of the state legislature quickly voted to override Gov. Jim Douglas’s veto of a bill allowing for same-sex marriages. This not only secures basic rights for same-sex couples, but it strips away the argument used by the opponents of justice that "no state has ever established same-sex marriage by the legislative process."

The override, which required a two-thirds vote in each house, wasn't even close in the state Senate, as was expected. But in the House, it was a squeaker: 100-49.
[T]he outcome in the House of Representatives was not clear until the final moments of a long roll call, when Rep. Jeff Young, a Democrat who voted against the bill last week, reversed his position.
It comes on the same day that the DC Council voted 12-0 to approve a measure that recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere as valid in DC. That is, if a same-sex couple was legally married in one of the four states that now allow same-sex marriages, they will be regarded as married in DC. It also allows the mayor to certify relationships that fall short of marriage as domestic partnerships.

The district itself has a domestic partnership law but does not allow same-sex marriage. However, this vote is regarded by a number of council members as a sign that it's only a matter of time before the council takes up a bill to legalize same-sex marriage.

Last year, the council gave the mayor they authority to recognize same-sex relationships if they are "substantially similar" to domestic partnerships already recognized by DC. But as of a month ago, he hadn't acted on that authority, using the excuse of questioning what would constitute being "substantially similar." So the council pretty much said "well, screw you, we'll do it ourselves," recognizing marriage and ordering the mayor to "broadly construe the term 'substantially similar' to maximize the recognition of relationships from other jurisdictions as domestic partnerships in the District."

This is an initial vote with a final vote to come next month, but I see little reason to expect the numbers to change. This sets up a possible clash with Congress, which has to approve DC laws under Home Rule. While Congress certainly has been heavy-handed with the District in previous cases and I fully expect the reactionaries to make a fuss over it, to huff and puff and posture and provoke, I honestly don't seem them as prevailing, just as using it as a talking point to rouse the base.

And, happy happy, the good news doesn't stop there. Or, I suppose better said, it didn't start there. Because this comes just days after the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a state law barring same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, declaring that
"We are firmly convinced the exclusion of gay and lesbian people from the institution of civil marriage does not substantially further any important governmental objective. The legislature has excluded a historically disfavored class of persons from a supremely important civil institution without a constitutionally sufficient justification."
In its press release about the decision, the court said that
[i]n addressing the case before it, the court found one constitutional principle was at the heart of the case - the doctrine of equal protection. Equal protection under the Iowa Constitution “is essentially a direction that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike.” Since territorial times, Iowa has given meaning to this constitutional provision, striking blows to slavery and segregation, and recognizing women’s rights. The court found the issue of same-sex marriage comes to it with the same importance as the landmark cases of the past.
The court's ruling was plain-spoken, even blunt, but what I found remarkable was the level of understanding that there are real flesh-and-blood people involved here, an awareness all too rare in the briefs and circumlocutions that usually fill our legal process.
As the court wrote ... the 12 plaintiffs (six couples) expressed "the disadvantages and fears they face each day due to the inability to obtain a civil marriage in Iowa." These include: "the legal inability to make many life and death decisions affecting their partner, including decisions related to health care ... the inability to share in their partners' state-provided health insurance, public employee pension benefits, and many private-employer-provided benefits and protections," and the denial of "several tax benefits."

"Yet, perhaps the ultimate disadvantage expressed in the testimony of the plaintiffs," the court continued, "is the inability to obtain for themselves and for their children the personal and public affirmation that accompanies marriage."
What the plaintiffs wanted, that is, is to be regarded as families. It is to the court's credit that it not only recognized this, it found it to be a significant and relevant factor.

What's more,
[t]he ruling appeared to dismiss the option of civil unions as a marriage alternative, finding that “a new distinction based on sexual orientation would be equally suspect and difficult to square with the fundamental principles of equal protection embodied in our constitution.”
As an added bonus, a move by conservative forces in the state senate to respond by pushing for an constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage will go nowhere, at least for this year. Eleven years ago, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal supported the bill overturned by the Iowa Supreme Court, but when asked by Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley if he'd join in crafting a bill to move an amendment forward, he said no. He'd learned a lot in the years since, he said.
“I see a bunch of people that merely want to profess their love for each other and want state law to recognize that. Is that so wrong? I don’t think that’s so wrong.” ...

“Friday I hugged my wife. I felt like our love was just a little more meaningful last Friday night, because thousands of other Iowa citizens could hug each other and have the state recognize their love for each other,” he said.
Bravo for growth and learning. They make living worth the effort.

This reminds me of how nearly two years ago a Massachusetts Constitutional Convention rejected an attempt to overturn that state's Supreme Judicial Court ruling that found a ban on same-sex marriages violated the state's constitution. The previous year, it had passed but it had to pass two years in a row before going to a referendum. The second time around,
it did not [pass], thanks to some hard lobbying and the admission of at least one legislator that he changed his mind after same-sex marriages started and, well, life went on as usual and society did not rip itself apart in raging controversy.

That the amendment failed is a measure of how far we've come; that a legislator could be surprised that same-sex marriage did not bring about the collapse of civil society is a measure of how far we have yet to go.
And we do, yes, still have a ways to go. The squealing, bug-eyed, vein-popping reactionaries are still out there and easy enough to find. But, amazingly, it appears that within the ranks of elected officials, the opponents of justice often feel the need to be more circumspect, to veil their bigotry in the language of reasonableness.

Consider, for example Vermont governor Douglas's veto message, which he had prepared in advance and was delivered "moments" after the bill passed the legislature. It was rather odd: He argued that the bill provides no more rights to same-sex couples than they had under the previous civil union law and that they still would not be recognized as married for the purposes of federal benefits. In other words, he was vetoing it because it doesn't really change anything legally one way or the other.

But in that case, why veto it, especially in such an emphatic manner? (I consider having your statement already written, just waiting for the moment the bill is delivered to your desk, to be an emphatic veto.) Why not just say "Yeah, sure, what the hell, makes no difference?"

The thing is, the bill does change something, even if not in some technical legal sense. It enables same-sex couples to say "We're not 'separate but equal,' we're equal. We're not 'as good as' married, we're married. We are that much less 'other' than we were before." I can't escape the feeling that this is the difference, the change, which Douglas was resisting by denying there was any change at all.

That feeling has echoes in the case of Connecticut, which is in the process of revising and cleaning up its laws in response to a state Supreme Court decision in October that the state's civil union law was inadequate recognition of the rights of same-sex couples and violated the principle of equal protection.

Some there are finding ways to dig in their heels where they can:
There was one item of controversy: The five stipulations added to the landmark 1991 anti-discrimination law. In order to placate Roman Catholics and other socially conservative constituencies ... the bill that made it illegal in Connecticut to fire or evict someone for being gay stated: 1) the state does not necessarily condone homosexuality, 2) schools wouldn't be required to teach about it, 3) there would be no quotas of gay employees for businesses, 4) marriage was still between a man and a woman, and 5) gays and lesbians aren't part of a protected class.

[State rep Bruce] Morris, who helped move along amendments clarifying that religious institutions wouldn't have to participate in same-sex unions, says the first stipulation - that Connecticut does not officially condone homosexuality - is important.

He stresses that he "owe[s] all people in [his] district equal protection," but says, "I don't think the state should condone or condemn any lifestyle," adding that, "I think [the statement] is still necessary for some, particularly those that are people of faith who need to know that the state doesn't oppose or want to interfere with their religious beliefs." It's about neutrality, Morris says.
Which is bullshit. What it's about is saying to gays and lesbians "We may not be able to keep you from getting married, but we still think you're scum." Just imagine anyone proposing any similar language in a law protecting the rights of blacks or women or Jews or anyone. They'd be condemned as the bigots they are.

And "lifestyle?" What the hell is that crap? Just as an experiment, I'd like to see someone in the Connecticut legislature or media ask Mr. "It's all about neutrality" Morris how he'd feel about amending the language to saying "the state does not necessarily condone homosexuality or heterosexuality." I wonder what he'd think about thus regarding heterosexuality, by his own logic, as a "lifestyle."

A good way to sum up is to think about this from CBS News:
[M]ost Americans do not support gay marriage: According to the latest CBS News poll on the topic, just one in three back full marriage rights for same-sex couples. Another 27 percent support civil unions, while 35 percent want no legal recognition at all.

Those numbers, however, have been moving, and not in the direction gay marriage opponents might like. In 2004, just 22 percent supported gay marriage – which means that there has been a nine-point increase in five years. And even the most optimistic gay marriage advocate would have been hard pressed, 15 years ago, to predict that 33 percent of Americans would be backing gay marriage by 2009.

In fact, the demographics suggest that support for gay marriage will only increase: Opposition comes largely from those 65 and older, just 18 percent of whom support gay marriage. Younger people – those 18 to 45 – are far more supportive, with 41 percent backing allowing same sex couples to marry.
And, of course, it should be pointed out that another way of expressing those poll numbers is that 60% of Americans favor legal recognition of, and rights for, same-sex couples, differing more on the symbolism of the word "marriage" than on the legal rights involved.

Over at JayV's place the other day, I commented in response to a post about the Iowa decision that
[t]he day will come when even needing to have this discussion will seem as odd as advocating laws against miscegenation does now. I don't know when that day will be and I'm old enough to think I might not live to see it - but it will come.
Not soon enough, but yes, it will come.

Footnote: This is the status of legal recognition of same-sex couples in the US today:

Nine states and the District of Columbia have some form of legal recognition.
- Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa, and Vermont recognize same-sex marriage.
- New Hampshire and New Jersey have civil unions. Moves are on in both state legislatures to move from civil unions to marriages; in New Hampshire the measure has passed the House while in New Jersey, Gov. Jon Corzine has said he will sign the bill now in the legislature if it passes.
- California, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia have domestic partnerships.

New York recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. The District of Columbia has taken initial steps to do the same.

In addition to New Hampshire and New Jersey, at least seven additional states will this year consider relevant legislation. Those include New York, Maine, and Rhode Island.

On the other hand, 43 states, including some of the above, have laws against same-sex marriage and 29 states have constitutional amendments limiting marriage to "one man and one woman" or similar language: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The California case, from the infamous Proposition Hate, is under challenge in state Supreme Court but that challenge is expected to fail.

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