Just days after the death of a proposed anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment, the Massachusetts legislature is poised to confront the issue of civil unions for the first time.
Several lawmakers have proposed bills, similar to a law passed in Vermont in 2000, that would grant gay and lesbian couples virtually all the rights and responsibilities of marriage that are provided under state law.
"It's time, maybe overtime," said Rep. Alice Wolf (D-Cambridge), who is sponsoring one of the bills. "Increasingly people are recognizing and honoring the fact that there are gay couples with families in our community. It's very important to recognize that." Also proposed this year is a bill legalizing gay marriage, which would give same-sex couples all the benefits granted under federal law, and legislation that would grant health care benefits to the domestic partners of public employees.
The domestic-partner bill has won approval in the state senate at least three times but has never come up for a vote in the house. Given this history, some advocates don't believe the civil union bills have a chance of passing. "Certainly not this year," said Arline Isaacson of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. "But we want to begin the education process."
The bills' introduction comes in the wake of a battle over the proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, which would have reserved the rights and benefits of wedlock for unions between one man and one woman. With the end of the last legislative session, at midnight Tuesday, the voter-initiated amendment officially died. Supporters, however, have filed a suit with the supreme judicial court to keep the initiative alive.
Since Vermont approved its bill in 2000, lawmakers in five other states--California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Washington--have introduced civil union legislation, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. To date, Massachusetts is the only state that has a civil union bill on the docket for the current legislative session, although advocates expect to see proposed legislation in California and Connecticut, according to NGLTF executive director Lorri Jean.
"It's going to happen more and more," Jean said. "As other states have done it and the sky hasn't fallen, the arguments against it become weaker and weaker."
Sen. Jarret Barrios (D-Cambridge), the lead sponsor of one of Massachusetts's civil union bills, said it's an issue of "fairness and justice."
"The people of Massachusetts are fair-minded," said Barrios, who is gay. "The question is, Will our legislature and governor allow fairness to come to the fore this legislative session?"