Friday, May 22, 2009

The significance of domestic partnership legislation in states that constitutionally ban same-sex marriage

05/22/09 Daily Denver News (source: Gay Marriage Watch) / 05/21/09 Denver Post:

On May 18th, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter signed into law SB 09-88, "CONCERNING THE EXTENSION OF STATE EMPLOYEE GROUP BENEFITS TO DOMESTIC PARTNERS OF STATE EMPLOYEES." The legislation extends benefits to the domestic partners of state employees and their children. It directs the State Personnel Director to adopt rules for employees to document their domestic partnerships, and introduces a definition of domestic partnerships. Colorado joins 8 other states with similar laws. (Governor Ritter's "spokesman", who claims that "Colorado joins a third of all states," appears to include states with broader domestic partnership laws.)

The measure has limited impact, as it will "extend health and dental insurance benefits to same-sex partners of about 79 state employees." But its significance extends beyond just the favorable outcome for these employees. In 2006, Colorado voters adopted Amendment No. 43, adding Art. I, Sec. 31, to the state constitution. It reads: "Only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state." Neither the amendment nor the ballot statements says anything about domestic partnerships. Nevertheless, according to Denver Daily News, "[c]ritics of SB 88 say the proposal flies in the face of Colorado voters, who in 2006 passed a ban on gay marriage and rejected spousal benefits for same-sex couples." So the new law sets a precedent that can be used to further legislate on domestic partnerships, and in that way to weaken the rationale for the constitutional ban on same-sex marriages.

Indeed, the precedential value of the law worries Colorado Family Action (CFA), which belongs to a "
nationwide network of family policy councils associated with Focus on the Family® and Dr. James Dobson." Here is how CFA describes its concern:

Colorado Family Action actively opposed this legislation during the 2009 Colorado Legislative Session because it attempts to elevate same-sex couples to the status of married couples by defining domestic partner as an eligible dependent of a state employee.

According to CFA, any state recognition of domestic partnership benefits - no matter how limited in scope - represents an effort to "elevate same-sex couples to the status of married couples."

Despite constitutional bans on same-sex marriages, Wisconsin's Govenor and Nevada's legislature have also recently proposed limited domestic partnership laws, which would apply to all same-sex couples, not just domestic partners of state employees. Last year, the administration of former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano extended benefits to domestic partners of state employees, even though Arizona voters also adopted a constitutional ban on same-sex marrige a month after the benefits extension took effec. (Art. XXX, Sec. 1, added by Prop. 102)

Supporters of same-sex marriage object to the inherent inequality of domestic partnerships. Perhaps that is why they have had little to say about inroads domestic partnership laws can make against public support for constitutional bans on same-sex marriage.

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