Connecticut moved closer Wednesday to allowing civil unions for gay and lesbian couples over the protests of some gay rights activists who believe the state should instead legalize same-sex marriage.
The legislature's judiciary committee voted 25-13 in favor of legislation that would create a civil union system. The bill would give gay and lesbian couples many of the same state rights as married heterosexuals but would not allow them to get a marriage license.
While disappointed that there wasn't a vote on marriage, gay rights advocates acknowledged they were still moved by the overwhelming support for civil unions. Many have been lobbying the legislature for more than five years on the same-sex marriage issue. "As much as we wanted marriage, when they called out that roll and said it was 13 against and 25 for, it was like, wow," said Bobbi Blake of Branford, who watched the committee vote with her partner of nearly 17 years, Cyd Sloteroff.
"I think there's a strong feeling among legislators that recognizes the importance and validity of same-sex couples and the need to rectify what is a very, very unjust situation right now," Sloteroff said. "I don't know where it's going to go, but I was moved by how much people want to make a serious change in the way things are."
Anne Stanback, president of Love Makes a Family, said she also was impressed that so many legislators have changed their minds over the years about rights for gay and lesbian couples. However, she said, her organization is opposing the civil union legislation. "We believe civil unions would write second-class citizenship into our law," Stanback said. "We feel that would be a step backward for Connecticut."
The bill still needs approval from the full legislature and the governor's signature. If that occurs, Connecticut would be the first state in the nation to voluntarily create a civil union system. Vermont is the only state to have civil unions, but that system resulted from a court decision.
Opponents of same-sex marriage said they are just as concerned about civil unions. Marie Hilliard, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference, said lawmakers need to know that if the bill becomes law, same-sex couples will go to the courts and argue that the state legislature intended to
recognize same-sex marriage. Last August seven gay and lesbian couples from around the state sued in New Haven superior court after being denied marriage licenses in Madison. A decision is expected in a few years. "My fear is that people will see this as a compromise, and clearly it is not a compromise," Hilliard said. "This is same-sex marriage by another name."
Some legislators on the panel agreed. Republican representative William Hamzy, chairman of the state Republicans, said there is really no meaningful difference between civil unions and marriage. "If you call it a different name, I guess that makes some people feel more comfortable," he said. "But the end result is identical."
Leaders of the judiciary committee said they decided to support a civil union bill after it became clear that it had more support in their committee and the full general assembly. "There are loving, committed relationships among couples in the state of Connecticut who deserve our protection," said state senator Andrew McDonald, cochairman of the Democrat-controlled judiciary committee. McDonald is one of the few openly gay legislators in Connecticut.
Other legislators who voted for civil unions predicted that Connecticut will eventually pass legislation that opens up marriage laws to same-sex couples. "You have many people here saying this will not be the end of the line," said Democratic representative Cameron Staples.
But Stanback said her group has been watching Vermont, which enacted civil unions five years ago. She said there is now no interest in that state to extend marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples. The organization's plan to oppose civil unions is creating some controversy among activists. Betty Gallo, a longtime lobbyist for Love Makes a Family, terminated her contract with the group because of a difference of opinion over the organization's strategy.
Democratic senator Mary Ann Handley, a supporter of same-sex marriage, voted against the civil union bill. She referred to it as "marriage lite." "I truly believe that what we are doing here is not what we should be doing," she said, comparing civil unions to giving women the right to vote, but only for
After the civil union bill passed, some opponents unsuccessfully attempted to amend the bill with legislation that would require Connecticut to recognize marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Another proposal to amend the state constitution with similar language also died. Thirteen states last year adopted constitutional amendments declaring that only couples in a traditional marriage are entitled to the benefits associated with marriage. (AP)