Monday, March 29, 2004

Massachusetts lawmakers are poised today to approve a constitutional amendment that both preserves traditional marriage and creates civil unions for same-sex couples.

The compromise is volatile. Traditional-values groups oppose civil unions because they are too marriagelike. Homosexual rights groups oppose civil unions (and any “marriage” amendment) because they have already been granted full marriage rights by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Even if the amendment is approved today, it would be only a first step in getting it passed. The amendment would also require approval by next year’s legislature and would have to be voted on by residents.

Politicians are gravitating to civil unions because they grant rights to homosexual couples while allowing marriage to stay as is.

But what kind of political answer is the civil union?

First, politicians need to know what civil unions are, said the Rev. Craig Benson, leader of Take It to the People, a group that opposes civil unions.

“If you are going to adopt civil unions, Vermont style, you are adopting state-sanctioned gay marriage,” he said. “Civil union is not domestic partnership on steroids.” It’s “an exact parallel” of state marriage, with full state rights.

The only things missing are recognition and benefits by the federal government and other states.

At least 1,138 federal laws exist in which marital status is a factor in determining or receiving benefits, rights and privileges, according to a 2002 General Accounting Office report.

Same-sex couples unfairly lose out on all these benefits, especially spousal benefits in Social Security, immigration, federal employment, Medicaid and federal tax law, said Shannon Minter, spokesman for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Because Vermont’s civil unions confer state marriage rights, they were once seen “as a monumental step forward, which, in fact they are,” said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

But since the Massachusetts high court decision Nov. 18 legalizing same-sex “marriage,” plus thousands of homosexual couples receiving “marriage” licenses in San Francisco, Portland, Ore. and elsewhere, things have shifted dramatically, Mr. Foreman said.

Civil unions “are now widely perceived as what they are, which is second-class, separate and wholly unequal,” he said.

Politicians, Mr. Foreman added, may believe that civil unions fairly address the concerns of homosexual couples while avoiding same-sex “marriage.” But civil unions are not the same as marriage, he said, “and to say to same-sex couples, ‘Here, we’re going to give you this other status, be happy with it,’ is profoundly insulting.”

Vermont enacted civil unions in July 2000. Between then and March 15 of this year, 6,761 civil unions and 29 dissolutions have been granted, said a spokesman in the state Department of Health. The great majority of those civil unions — 86 percent — were granted to out-of-state couples, and about two-thirds of all civil-union couples were lesbians.

The impact of civil unions on state government was small. Reports in 2001 and 2002 by a now-disbanded Vermont Civil Union Review Commission concluded that implementing civil unions had “minor impact” on state government operations, “negligible impact” in the courts and “negligible impact” in other states.

Not all Vermonters, however, believe civil unions are here to stay.

“There are thousands of people like me who are quietly frustrated, still angry, still waiting for their opportunity to do more about this issue,” said Steve Cable, president of Vermont Renewal, a nonprofit pro-family group.

Codifying civil unions has led to a “countercultural shift” throughout Vermont. Homosexual couples now openly express their affections, teachers are more emboldened to discuss homosexuality in class and “gay pride” events are more “out there,” he said.

Repealing civil unions remains the goal of traditional-values groups. In 2000, they helped achieve the defeat of 17 pro-civil union lawmakers and retake the Vermont House of Representatives.

“We’re doing more than hanging in there,” Mr. Cable said.

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