June 24th, 2007
When states bar gay unions, domestic couples lose perks
After Massachusetts legalized gay marriage in 2004, more than 20 states rushed to pass constitutional amendments barring the practice. Backers said their initiatives would have no impact beyond marriage. In particular, they disputed the argument that these measures would prevent state and local governments from offering benefits to same-sex partners. As one supporter of Michigan's 2004 initiative told USA TODAY, "This has nothing to do with taking benefits away. This is about marriage between a man and a woman." Skip forward to 2007. Apparently it does have something to do with taking benefits away. In February, a Michigan court ruled that the state's amendment bars public employers from offering health coverage and other benefits to unmarried partners, gay or straight.
Similar moves to revoke domestic-partner benefits are afoot in other states. Kentucky's attorney general recently decided that the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville could not offer such benefits. A lawsuit is pending in Ohio over Miami University's benefits.
These developments expose the disingenuous arguments that surrounded many of the ballot measures. They also underscore the usefulness of civil unions as a middle ground in states that want to reserve the unique status of marriage for heterosexual couples. Civil unions don't carry the religious and cultural significance of traditional marriage, but they can protect gay couples from those who would use marriage laws to deny them benefits.
Some 26 states have passed amendments banning same-sex marriage. (A 27th, Hawaii, passed an amendment empowering the legislature to define marriage, which it subsequently did.) Of these, 18 or 19 can fairly be read to bar civil unions and are likely to have broad effects that go well beyond preserving traditional marriage.
States that prevent public employers from offering benefits to unmarried couples are hurting themselves. Governments, like private sector employers, are in competition for the best and brightest minds. Policies that drive away gay workers needlessly make recruiting and retention harder. This is particularly important at universities, hospitals and other centers of research and innovation where competition for talent can be intense.
Backers of marriage amendments point out the overwhelming margin by which their measures passed. Since 2004, only one state, Arizona, has rejected an amendment. But sentiment is shifting, particularly among younger voters. Polls show about three-fifths of Americans favor legal recognition - either marriage or civil unions - for gay relationships.
It is far from certain whether some of the amendments passed in 2004 would succeed today. Same-sex marriage has been legal in Spain for two years; eventually it might be accepted in the United States. Meanwhile, states that rushed to ban it need to rethink language that is overly broad or likely to produce unintended consequences.
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