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Connecticut civil unions bill complicates marriage effort

Connecticut civil unions bill complicates marriage effort

With Connecticut on the verge of recognizing same-sex civil unions, questions have surfaced about whether the legislation will affect a lawsuit filed by gay and lesbian couples challenging the constitutionality of Connecticut's marriage laws. The state senate is expected to give final legislative approval to the civil unions bill as early as next week, and Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, has pledged to sign it into law. Before approving the bill Wednesday, the house amended it to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman, satisfying concerns Rell had about the proposal. Some proponents of same-sex marriage say passage of the legislation could bolster their argument that Connecticut has an unconstitutional and separate system for same-sex couples, thereby stigmatizing gay and lesbian families. The goal of the lawsuit, filed last August by seven gay couples denied marriage licenses in Madison, is to force the state to open its marriage laws to same-sex couples. The case is expected to take several years to resolve. "Why have two separate lines when you have one citizenry," asked Mary Bonauto, a lawyer with Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, which filed the case and successfully challenged marriage laws in Massachusetts. "No matter how well-intentioned much of the [civil unions] legislation is, it is designed to deny something that is even more important, which is marriage." But Atty. Gen. Richard Blumenthal, who represents the state in the lawsuit, said the civil unions bill should have no effect on the constitutional challenge. "The essential fact remains that Connecticut statutes provide no authority for marriages to be performed or licensed between members of the same sex, which the lawsuit claims is a denial of equal protection," Blumenthal said. If the legislature, for example, allowed gay couples to marry but with certain restrictions, that might be problematic. In this case, he said, lawmakers have only extended more rights to same-sex couples through civil unions. Rell--who supports civil unions but opposes same-sex marriage--said she is uncertain whether the civil unions bill passed by the house makes the state more vulnerable to a constitutional challenge. "I think they made it very clear they support a marriage between a man and a woman," the governor said. "Whether that affects that lawsuit, I don't know." The civil unions bill passed the house on an 85-63 vote. It mirrors Vermont's law and provides all the rights and privileges of marriage to same-sex couples, but without a marriage license. Like the overall bill, opinions differ on how judges may interpret the amendment defining marriage. Jennifer Brown, director of the Center for Dispute Resolution at the Quinnipiac University School of Law and an advocate for same-sex marriage, believes there is the possibility that amending the bill to define marriage could help the plaintiffs in their lawsuit. "It does seem to underscore this separate quality of gay couples," Brown said. "In my opinion, frankly, I think civil union already does that to some extent. There is no need to underscore that by again defining marriage." Brian Brown, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, said the amendment clears up any ambiguity in state law. He said it specifically spells out for judges that Connecticut recognizes marriage only between a man and woman. But Brown believes that in order to prevent judges from "making law out of thin air" and opening up the marriage laws to same-sex couples, Connecticut--like a growing number of other states--must amend the state constitution and ban gay marriage. "We need to have these things made as clear as possible," he said. If the civil unions bill becomes law, Connecticut would become the first state to approve such a law without court pressure. Vermont has approved civil unions, and Massachusetts has same-sex marriage, but those changes came only after gay and lesbian couples brought lawsuits. (AP)

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