Civil unions bill is unlikely to end debate

As the Connecticut legislature moves closer to becoming the first state to pass civil unions for same-sex couples without a court order, a battle is still brewing in the state courts over same-sex marriage.

Last August, the gay rights activist group Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders filed Kerrigan & Mock v. Connecticut Department of Public Health in New Haven Superior Court on behalf of seven same-sex couples who were denied marriage licenses. GLAD is currently waiting to file briefs on the merits of the case this summer.

Conservative political organizations have speculated that the state’s civil union bill might encourage courts to rule in favor of same-sex marriage.

On Wednesday, the state house added an amendment to the bill stating that marriage is defined as a union between a man and a woman. The senate, which passed the unamended bill last week, will now have to vote on the amended version.

Legal experts said the amendment to the bill has no legal significance since Connecticut law already restricts marriage to heterosexual couples.

“If the legislature adds this extra section, it will be superfluous and have no purpose except a symbolic one,” Yale Law School professor William Eskridge said.

Eskridge said he thinks passage of a civil union bill might actually decrease the likelihood that the state Supreme Court would agree to hear the Kerrigan case.

“It would take the pressure off the courts and would make it much less likely that the Supreme Court would accept the case because the state would have already adopted formal rights,” Eskridge said.

GLAD spokesperson Carisa Cunningham said she did not expect anything to change with regard to the case if the civil union bill passes.

“We don’t really know what the impact will be, but the merits remain the same since this is a marriage case,” Cunningham said.

But Family Institute of Connecticut executive director Brian Brown said his organization, which has actively opposed the civil union bill, is concerned that the state courts might be more likely to rule for same-sex marriage if civil unions are passed.

“We are definitely worried about that possibility,” Brown said. “We have no doubt that proponents of same-sex marriage who have supported the bill and said it will not affect our marriage law, once this civil unions bill is passed, will do what they’ve done in other states and claim that it will affect our marriage law.”

State Rep. Mike Lawlor, a leading proponent of civil unions in the house, said he thinks the amendment to the bill reiterating the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman can be interpreted as a bias against same-sex couples.

“This is completely unnecessary because it’s already in the law, and notwithstanding that the legislature did it anyway,” Lawlor said. “I think the Supreme Court is going to look at the debate in the legislature and try to look at why that amendment was added. There’s no legal reason for it, so it’s animus [against same-sex couples].”

Brown said his organization believes a state constitutional amendment restricting marriage to unions of one man and one woman is necessary to prevent a court ruling for same-sex marriage.

Though Connecticut’s civil union bill confers all the same rights as marriage, both gay rights activists and conservative groups argue the distinction is important.

“There is a big difference between civil unions and same-sex marriage,” Hugh Eastwood LAW ’06, who helped to organize the Law School’s same-sex conference this semester, said in an e-mail yesterday. “Marriage as a concept has a long legal history, whereas civil unions do not.”

According to an April 7 Quinnipiac University poll, Connecticut voters support civil union legislation by a 56 percent to 37 percent margin, but oppose same-sex marriage 53 percent to 42 percent. These statistics represent a slight drop in support for both civil unions and same-sex marriage from the last Quinnipiac poll on the issue, released in June 2004.

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