Little more than a week remains before Connecticut becomes the first state in the country to offer same-sex civil unions by legislative act rather than by court order. As a result of a bill passed by the state legislature last April, town and city clerks’ offices across Connecticut — in New Haven’s case, the Office of Vital Statistics — will begin issuing certificates Oct. 1 to formalize these unions.
Civil unions confer all the rights granted by the state to married couples, but no federal rights, as they are not recognized as marriages. Yet even as the countdown begins, uncertainty remains for same-sex couples, activists on both sides of the issue, and the very government officials who will enforce the new law, about both the political results of the law and about the ways it will apply. Asked to clarify the law’s application by the state Department of Public Health, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 released a legal opinion Tuesday recognizing civil unions and some domestic partnerships from other states while denying recognition to same-sex marriages.
“Civil unions performed in other states are entitled to full faith and credit in Connecticut, will be recognized, and need not be repeated here,” Blumenthal said in his statement. “Out-of-state same-sex marriages have no legal force and effect here.”
Blumenthal said in a press release that Connecticut is constitutionally mandated to recognize unions that confer similar benefits as Connecticut unions, but are not actual marriages. Civil unions from Vermont and domestic partnerships from California will be recognized, he said, but other partnerships are still being reviewed at this time based on specific provisions. Same-sex marriages, he said in the opinion, could not be recognized because the legislature has defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
Connecticut Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, a Democrat from New Haven and a strong supporter of the bill, said he was proud that it was going into effect.
“It’s a matter of equity and civil rights fairness,” he said. “I’m pleased that Connecticut became the first state to adopt civil unions without being forced to.”
Asked about Blumenthal’s decision, he said it was the correct analysis for the present, especially if one considered the federal Defense of Marriage Act, but that he believed some sort of arrangement would eventually be made to handle same-sex marriages from other states.
“I think there will come a time when we evolve toward full reciprocity,” he said. “I would be supportive of moving toward reciprocity with Massachusetts, as long as there was some sort of recognition of our unions on their end as well.”
The imminent implementation of the legislation and Blumenthal’s decision have galvanized groups on both sides of the issue on Yale’s campus and statewide.
Brian Brown, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, which believes civil unions undermine the institution of marriage, said Blumenthal’s decision was proof that civil unions will lead to legal confusion and numerous lawsuits, some of which might institute same-sex marriage without the approval of the people.
“They’ve created a legal morass,” he said. “Civil unions are a false compromise which instead invites further legal challenges.”
Brown’s group plans to protest at the state capital Oct. 1, and he said they continue to push for a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
Blumenthal said in the press release that his opinion was not the final word on the subject.
“This opinion concerns a new, developing area of law – uncharted legal territory in Connecticut,” he said. “Our courts, obviously, will be the ultimate source of answers.”
Andrew Dowe ’08, founder of Students Advocating for Marriage Equality, a group in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Co-op that campaigned for civil unions last spring, said his group will have to struggle to organize for the ultimate goal of same-sex marriage.
“A lot of people do become complacent,” he said. “They don’t recognize that people aren’t granted the same rights and protections under civil unions as with marriage.”
One person who will not wait is 76-year-old Hamden resident Terry Lawrence, who intends to get a civil union with her 80-year-old partner of 36 years early in November. For Lawrence, some of the rights civil unions will confer, like those associated with health care, are too important for the elderly couple to hold off on principle.
“We have all the documents one might need to make each other’s health care decisions,” she said. “But you can have all that strapped to your chest, and in a homophobic setting, it could be ignored [without the guarantees of a civil union].”
Lawrence said she hoped civil unions might help convince people to see same-sex couples as families, both for her sake and for that of younger couples who have adopted children. She said that it was also one of the reasons she appeared in a New Haven Register article last Sunday on the subject of civil unions.
“It was a nice feeling, like maybe we’re putting a face on this,” she said, “People who have known us for 25 years can say, ‘Oh, they’re not different!'”