Saturday, April 23, 2005

A Civil Debate Over Civil Union

The New York Times
April 23, 2005

A Civil Debate Over Civil Union

One of the amazing things about Connecticut's approval of a law guaranteeing the rights of gay couples was the almost placid way the political process worked. This is a pioneering law - the first enacting civil union voluntarily, without court pressure - yet it was adopted with a minimum of political fireworks. There are healthy lessons in this for the rest of the nation as this vital human right progresses.

Connecticut's legislators were obviously influenced by shifting public opinion in favor of taking the historic step, but even more by the gatherings across the state where gay couples invited politicians and neighbors into their homes to experience their domestic lives firsthand. This grass-roots lobbying by gay and lesbian couples proved that their humanity was not to be denied, even if the word "marriage" was denied to them as the final compromise was passed by large, bipartisan margins and was enthusiastically signed by Gov. Jodi Rell, a Republican.

The law firmly extends to gay couples the same rights and protections guaranteed to married heterosexuals, including tax and insurance benefits, family leave, hospital visits and more. Its passage was undoubtedly eased by an amendment that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. But there's cause for optimism that this obstacle may be removed, considering the state's progressive path since the day, 40 years ago, when the courts finally struck down a puritanical law that criminalized birth control.

In the past 15 years, Connecticut has protected gays and lesbians under hate-crime, employment and housing laws, and allowed unmarried couples to raise adopted children. Just as civil union was the next logical step, so may the term marriage be finally extended someday.

Other states are heading in a different direction. Fourteen have banned gay marriage in the last year, with Kansas going further and outlawing civil union. But Connecticut's new law and the bolstering of gay unions in Vermont, Massachusetts and California provide a response to the tendency of civil libertarians to presume that lawmaking is transitory and less reliable than a court decision. Critical as the courts are, there's nothing more stirring than the sight of a legislature, representing the will of the people, passing laws to protect the rights of a vulnerable minority group.