Gay Rights measures on the ballot in three U.S. States this Autumn

28 Sep 2009

Nearly a year after California voters overturned same-sex marriage, voters in three other states will weigh in this fall on whether to reverse gay rights initiatives ranging from anti-discrimination measures to marriage benefits.

In Maine, voters will decide whether or not to uphold the state's legalization of same-sex marriage. In Washington state, a so-called "everything but marriage" law that expands the state's current domestic partnership law will be on the ballot. And in Kalamazoo, Mich., voters will decide on an ordinance that prohibits discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals.

"In off-year elections, ballot measures gain much more attention, regardless of the topic," said University of Washington political science professor Matt Barreto. But California's battle over Proposition 8 is "certainly an important backdrop."

Under a California Supreme Court decision, California had allowed same-sex marriages for five months before 52 percent of voters reversed the ruling in the contentious $83 million Prop. 8 battle last November. The state's Supreme Court upheld the vote earlier this year.

Gay rights supporters see one silver lining in the loss in California.

"It has sparked a greater public conversation about gay people," said Dan Hawes, a field director with the Washington, D.C.-based National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "While we have lost in previous ballot measures, because the margin of loss continues to shrink, it does indicate that there is growing acceptance."

Barreto said that the money involved in this year's ballot measures won't come close to Prop. 8 -- California is a much more expensive market to run TV ads in, and the Prop. 8 ads came during a high profile presidential election year, driving the cost astronomically higher, he said.

In Maine, opponents of gay marriage had raised more than $343,000 through the end of the last quarterly reporting period in July, with $160,000 from the National Organization for Marriage, one of the groups that backed Prop. 8. Supporters of gay marriage raised $143,290 in that same period.

In addition to the loss in California, gay-rights supporters suffered setbacks elsewhere last fall, with amendments banning gay marriage being approved in Arizona and Florida. Arkansas voters approved a measure banning unmarried couples from serving as adoptive or foster parents.

"When the people have voted, they have voted to defend marriage," said Carrie Gordon Earll, senior director of public policy for Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family.

Thirty states have voter-approved gay marriage bans in their constitutions. Several other states, including Washington, have bans that were passed by state lawmakers.

The 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, bars federal recognition of gay unions and denies gay couples access to federal pensions, health insurance and other government benefits.

Since then, six states have enacted laws or issued court rulings that permit same-sex marriage, including Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut and Iowa. New Hampshire's law takes effect Jan. 1.

Maine's gay marriage law was scheduled to go into effect on Sept. 12, but it was put on hold once opponents got enough signatures to force a public vote.

"There's going to be victories and there's going to be reversals," said Washington state Sen. Ed Murray, one of the Legislature's six gay lawmakers, who successfully spearheaded a gay rights law and three domestic partnership laws. "There is an impression that somehow because we elected a Democratic president and Democratic Congress, this is all solved. It isn't."

Lawmakers in Washington state have taken an incremental approach to increasing gay rights without actually taking on the state's marriage ban, which was upheld by the state Supreme Court in 2006. The following year, lawmakers passed the state's first domestic partnership law granting a handful of rights, like hospital visitation, to gay and lesbian couples.

In 2008, that law was expanded to add more rights, and this year the latest law added such partnerships to all remaining areas of state law where currently only married couples are mentioned. The statutes range from labor and employment rights to pensions and other public employee benefits.

Nearly 12,000 people in Washington state are registered as domestic partners, and while the underlying law that was passed in 2007 allows some older heterosexual couples to register as domestic partners, most of the couples are gay.

Conservative Christians rallied to get Referendum 71 on the November ballot, arguing that Washington state's latest move is the last step before full civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples in the state.

Opponents of the state's law are also fighting in court to try to continue shielding the names of people who signed petitions to force a public vote.

Attorneys for Protect Marriage Washington say that referendum signers' names and addresses should be exempt from the state's public records disclosure law because release of the information would put them at risk of harassment, amounting to an unconstitutional infringement of free speech rights.

A federal judge in Tacoma granted the sponsors' request earlier this month. But the state is appealing, citing the state's open-government laws. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hold a hearing on the case in Pasadena, Calif. next month.

The constitutional argument is similar to that made by the National Organization for Marriage and other groups that sponsored Prop. 8. Those groups had sought to block their campaign finance records from public view, saying previous reports led to the harassment of donors. A federal judge in that case ruled earlier this year the names had to be disclosed. A lawsuit on the case is moving forward.

"No one should have to suffer vandalism and death threats just because they support government protection of traditional marriage," attorney James Bopp Jr., representing Protect Marriage, said in a recent press release. Bopp was also involved in the effort to shield California donors.

If R-71 is rejected, only the most recent law would be rolled back; the two prior domestic partnership laws would not be affected.

Washington state, along with California, Oregon, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia, have laws that either recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships that afford same-sex couples similar rights to marriage.

While Maine and Washington state will get most of the focus in November's election, a gay rights ordinance in the southwestern Michigan city of Kalamazoo is getting national attention from groups on both sides as well.

The city's ordinance, which outlaws employment, housing and public-accommodation discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identification, took effect July 9 but was suspended once opponents turned in enough signed petitions to force a public vote.

On the Net:
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force:
Focus on the Family:
Washington Families Standing Together:
Protect Marriage Washington:
No on Kalamazoo Non-Discrimination Ordinance:
Yes on Kalamazoo Non-Discrimination Ordinance:
Maine Freedom to Marry:
Stand For Marriage Maine:
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