Sunday, June 21, 2009

Domestic partnership proposals advance in the Wisconsin Senate: why this development matters, and its implication for Obama's strategy on DOMA repeal

06/18/09 SF Examiner (source: Gay Marriage Watch)

The Examiner has posted a press release by Fair Wisconsin on the state Senate's approval of a budget that includes two proposals for limited domestic partnership benefits. These would extend benefits to same-sex partners of state employees and to Wisconsin same-sex couples. As Fair Wisconsin notes, this development matters in a state whose constitution (Art. XIII, Sec. 13) bans same-sex marriage and "substanitally similar" civil unions:

Governor [Jim] Doyle, who included domestic partnership protections as part of his biennial budget, is expected to sign domestic partnership protections into law by the end of June. This enactment would make Wisconsin the first state with an existing constitutional amendment banning marriage equality and civil unions to provide domestic partnership protections for same-sex couples, and the first state in the Midwest to legislatively enact protections for same-sex couples.

Will Wisconsin set a strategic example to advocates of same-sex marriage in states that constitutionally ban such marriages? Several state Supreme Courts have found that because domestic partnerships are inherently unequal, they reinforce the stigmatization and second-class status of same-sex couples. That finding have even more force with respect to domestic partnerships with only limited benefits. Nevertheless, even limited benefits materially improve the lives of same-sex couples who are the beneficiaries. And many advocates favor incremental changes in public opinion to nurture growing political support for gay marriage. In fact, the domestic partnership proposals in Wisconsin have enough strategic value to concern gay-marriage opponents in other states with "Marriage Protection Amendments."

Gay-marriage supporters have faulted Obama not just for the DOJ brief defending the federal DOMA, but also for his recent memorandum on limited domestic partner benefits for federal employees. However, the presidential memorandum represents a political strategy that may have overlooked practical merits, with potential to do more good than harm, given that Obama does not have enough votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster against repealing the federal DOMA. His initiative on domestic partnerships, like Governor Doyle's initiative, not only helps affected same-sex couples, but also changes the terms of public debate, by advancing arguments based on equality and fairness. Repeal of the federal DOMA faces formidable political opposition; refocusing public debate on equality and fairness can weaken such opposition.

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