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Connecticut Rings In

Connecticut Rings In

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Now that the Constitution State has become the third in the nation to extend marriage equality, what's next?

After several years of legal wrangling and uncertainty, Barbara Levine-Ritterman of New Haven, Conn., was overjoyed at the news that she would soon be able to legally marry her longtime partner, Robin. "It was glorious," says Barbara, who works as a computer consultant. "We've waited a long time for this."

The two women were one of eight couples who sued the state of Connecticut in 2004 after they were refused marriage licenses. And on October 10, Connecticut became the third state in the nation to legalize marriage equality -- joining California and Massachusetts -- after its supreme court ruled that denying gay couples the right to marry violated the state's constitution. Currently, Connecticut affords same-sex couples only the recognition of civil unions, but sometime shortly after October 28, when the ruling takes effect, they'll be able to marry.

"It's been an eight-year campaign, and it felt really good to get where we got," says Anne Stanback, executive director of the Hartford-based Love Makes a Family. Her group led the grass-roots lobbying effort for equal marriage rights in Connecticut, working closely with attorneys from Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, who represented the plaintiffs.

In a decision hailed as precedent-cementing by many observers, Justice Richard Palmer wrote for the majority that "gay persons are entitled to marry the otherwise qualified same-sex partner of their choice. To decide otherwise would require us to apply one set of constitutional principles to gay persons and another to all others. The guarantee of equal protection under the law, and our obligation to uphold that command, forbids us from doing so."

They were just the kind of words that plaintiffs like Garrett Stack, a retired school administrator from Woodbridge, Conn., had hoped to hear. " 'Separate but equal' has been rejected by the court. It gives you faith in our judicial system," says Stack, who has been with his partner, John Anderson, for 27 years. "It's what people do when they're in love -- they get married -- and we're as good and valuable as other people."

GLAD, in conjunction with a team of Connecticut-based attorneys, filed the case on behalf of eight same-sex couples who were denied marriage licenses in the town of Madison in 2004. In Kerrigan and Mock et al. v. Connecticut Dept. of Public Health (the department that supervises marriage licensing in Connecticut), plaintiffs' attorneys argued that the state's 2005 civil union law failed to provide same-sex couples with the equal protection guaranteed under Connecticut's constitution.

Although the state superior court ruled in June 2006 that civil unions did provide same-sex couples with equal protections, the couples appealed, and the supreme court began hearing arguments in May 2007.

In the majority supreme court opinion, Justice Palmer also discussed the positive impact marriage has on families, in particular when it comes to legally protecting children and providing them a sense of stability and security in the home.

"Excluding same-sex couples from civil marriage will not make children of opposite-sex marriages more secure," Palmer wrote, "but it does prevent children of same-sex couples from enjoying the immeasurable advantages that flow from the assurance of a stable family structure in which the children will be reared, educated, and socialized."

Six out of the eight plaintiff couples have children. "In our culture, marriage does make a difference," says Robin Levine-Ritterman, who has two children with her partner, Barbara.

National Center for Lesbian Rights attorney Shannon Minter, who argued the marriage equality case before the California supreme court, says the Connecticut ruling is "a very solid, well-reasoned opinion. It was very straightforward." And while they frequently drew from the California marriage equality ruling issued in May 2008s, the Connecticut justices more extensively analyzed the "political powerlessness" of gay men and lesbians, which makes it harder to gain equality through the legislative process, Minter adds.

GLAD senior attorney Ben Klein calls the decision "tremendously valuable" in that the justices "took on and rebutted in great detail and force" the notion that sexual orientation doesn't require "heightened scrutiny" or special considerations when courts rule on cases involving potential discrimination against gays and lesbians. Citing the California supreme court's marriage equality decision as precedent, this ruling affirms that sexual orientation does indeed require that level of scrutiny, Klein says, and other courts around the country will be able to cite and draw from the two decisions when deliberating on LGBT-related cases, whether same-sex marriage or other issues.

Minter agrees. "This decision really wrote the book on this question now," he says. "Any court that's going to be honest about existing precedent is going to have a difficult time affirming marriage bans."

Of course, not everyone is happy with the decision. Conservative groups in Connecticut were outraged by the ruling; the Family Institute of Connecticut, the state's leading lobbyists against equal marriage, condemned the decision as imposing "same-sex 'marriage' by judicial fiat."

Since the decision cannot be appealed to a federal court -- the case and the ruling were based on state law -- opponents have now pinned their hopes on changing the state's constitution. On November's ballot, Connecticut residents will vote on whether the legislature should convene to review the state's constitution. (The state constitution requires the question to be posed on the ballot every 20 years.) The Family Institute of Connecticut and the Connecticut Catholic Convention have urged residents to vote in favor of a convention, citing the need to outlaw marriage equality through referendum. Holding a convention, however, would cost the state millions of dollars, and many lawmakers join pro-choice groups, labor unions, and the League of Women Voters of Connecticut in opposing it. Even Republican governor M. Jodi Rell has said she would prefer to let the ruling stand as is, although she doesn't support it.

And pushing for a constitutional revision based solely on marriage may not garner the support the Family Institute of Connecticut hopes for. Marriage equality has found increased support among Connecticut's citizens. A 2007 poll by the University of Connecticut and the Hartford Courant reported that 49% of respondents were in favor of allowing same-sex couples to marry, while 46% were opposed. Compare that to the findings of a Quinnipiac University poll two years earlier, in which only 42% favored marriage equality, with 53% opposed.

Before any group can attempt to reverse the progress resulting from the supreme court's decision, lawmakers must determine the status of couples currently in civil unions. Stanback points to language included in a marriage equality bill that made it through the general assembly's judiciary committee but died on the floor in April 2007. It included a provision that would provide couples who already had a civil union with "a window of time" to either dissolve their union (if they did not wish to be married) or to file new documentation with the state for a separate marriage certificate. At a certain date, all civil unions would become marriages. Stanback expects the assembly to take up that issue in early January.

In the meantime, marriage equality activists expect that the 4-3 ruling might provide a boost to efforts to defeat anti-gay marriage initiatives on ballots in California, Florida, and Arizona on November 4. "There is a greater and greater sense that this is the direction the country is going," Klein says. "All of these decisions create forward momentum."

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