State Marriage Watch: The Battlegrounds For Marriage Equality In 2011

With the Republican majority in Congress showing little interest in taking up equality legislation, most of efforts to expand marriage to gay and lesbian Americans will likely occur in the states, where lawmakers will be looking to advance marriage initiatives or scale them back. Today, the Wonk Room is unveiling ‘State Marriage Watch,’ a semi-regular feature that will chronicle the latest marriage advancements in the states and conservative efforts to beat them back. What follows is a summary of the latest developments in states where issues related to marriage and civil unions are currently being debated.

– ARIZONA: Gov. Brewer (R) signed a bill that would give “primary consideration” to married (read: heterosexual) couples in all the state’s adoption and foster care services, which could essentially end same-sex couples’ access to those services.

– ARKANSAS: The Arkansas legislature has passed an anti-bullying law that enumerates the attributes of sexual orientation and gender identity (PDF). Meanwhile, the Arkansas Supreme Court recently overturned the ban on same-sex adoption voted into effect in 2008.

– CALIFORNIA: The Proposition 8 case remains in limbo after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals punted the appeal of Judge Vaughn Walker’s historic ruling against the measure to the California Supreme Court, noting that it could not rule on the constitutionality of the measure until the higher court confirmed the standing of the plaintiffs. Despite attempts to lift the stay on Judge Walker’s decision, the state is still not permitted to offer same-sex wedding licenses. Meanwhile, the legislature is advancing a bill that would recognize LGBT history in California textbooks.

– COLORADO: State Sen. Pat Steadman said introduced a measure earlier this year allowing civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. In 2006, voters approved Amendment 43 to the Colorado constitution, specifying that “only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Colorado.” A 2010 poll by Greenberg Quinlan Roster Research and American Viewpoint showed that 72 percent of Coloradans support legal recognition of gay couples. The bill passed its final reading in the Senate on March 23, but failed to pass out of a House committee. In April, an anti-bullying bill advanced out of the House Education Committee.

– CONNECTICUT: In April, a bill ended transgender discrimination saw progress, passing out of the Judiciary Committee.

– DELAWARE: In mid-March, Rep. Melanie George introduced a bill to legalize civil unions in Delaware. The bill has the support of Governor Markell as well as the mayor of Wilmington and 62% of Delaware voters. In early April, the Senate approved the bill, and the House followed suit on April 14th.

– DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: An attempt to overturn marriage equality in our nation’s capital was denied a hearing by the Supreme Court, ensuring there would not be a voter referendum on Washington’s same-sex marriage law.

– FLORIDA: Domestic partner benefits will now be available in Orange County thanks to a unanimous vote by the county’s commissioners.

– HAWAII: On Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011 Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed a bill legalizing same-sex civil unions in Hawaii. The law takes effect Jan. 1, 2012. Hawaii was almost the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 1993 after a decision by its Supreme Court sparked debate nationwide. A bill to ban workplace discrimination against transgender Hawaiians awaits the governor’s signature.

– KANSAS: Despite being overturned as unconstitutional by Lawrence v. Texas (2003), Kansas’s law criminalizing gay sex remains on the books thanks to the ranking leaders of the House Judiciary Committee.

– ILLINOIS: On Jan. 31, 2011, Gov. Patrick Quinn signed SB1716, the “Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act,” which allows gay and straight couples to enter into civil unions. They will receive some of the same benefits available to married couples, “including the right to visit a sick partner in the hospital, disposition of a deceased loved one’s remains and the right to make decisions about a loved one’s medical care.” Follow-up anti-gay bills have not seen much success. A provision put forth by Catholic Democratic Senators in April to allow adoption discrimination by religious agencies failed.

– INDIANA: In mid-February, Indiana’s legislature began debating a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, despite same-sex marriage already being against the law there. The bill passed both houses, despite opposition from all Fortune 500 companies in the state, condemnation from major newspapers, polling showing a majority of Hoosiers oppose the amendment, and direct protest. The General Assembly will have to pass the measure again in 2013 or 2014 for the amendment to be finalized.

– IOWA: Lawmakers committed this year to banning same-sex marriage through a constitutional amendment, and despite overwhelming support in the Iowa House in February, the resolution will likely die April 1 because of the legislature’s “funnel” rule. A bill must pass a chamber (as it did in the House) and a committee of the other chamber, and the Senate State Government Committee does not have sufficient support. Either way, Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal has vowed to keep the bill off the floor of the Senate. Meanwhile, former gubernatorial candidate Vander Plaats is also fundraising “towards efforts to force an impeachment or resignation of the remaining four high court justices,” an effort that is not supported by Governor Terry Branstad (R-IA). An April attempt to advance impeachment was quashed by Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen (R).

– LOUISIANA: An en banc decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a previous decision allowing a same-sex couple to have both their names on their son’s birth certificate. The couple has not made a decision yet on whether to appeal.

– MAINE: State Rep. Ken Fredette (R) is pushing a bill that would reopen discrimination against transgender individuals in public accommodations (like bathrooms and lockerrooms) by requiring they use facilities that match their biological sex.

– MARYLAND: Given that Maryland has been recognizing out-of-state same-sex unions since last year, hopes were high in 2011 to pass a bill for full marriage equality. The Maryland Senate even passed the bill in early March, but it essentially died when the House voted to send it back to committee, meaning it won’t see the light of day until at least 2012. A bill offering gender identity protections saw a similar demise due to opposition by Democratic Senate leadership.

– MICHIGAN: Billed as a budgeting issue, Republicans in the Michigan legislature are trying to rescind health insurance benefits for same-sex partners, but the bill is currently stalled, having failed upon its first vote.

– MINNESOTA: Social conservatives are pressuring Republicans to pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriages in the state. On Friday, the Minnesota Family Council will host a marriage amendment course for legislators. Last week, members of the new Republican majority blocked a rules amendment “that would have made balancing Minnesota’s budget the House’s top priority this session” and made it more difficult for conservatives to purse social legislation. In March, a judge dismissed a challenge to the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, but a bill introduced in April would offer domestic partner benefits.

– MONTANA: According to the laws in Montana, homosexual sex is still a criminal activity. Like in Kansas, Montana failed in March to repeal sodomy laws that were nullified by Lawrence v. Texas in 2003. The laws are totally unenforceable, but Montana Republicans insist it stay on the books because of homosexuality compares to bestiality and pedophilia. In April, a District Court Judge dismissed a lawsuit by six same-sex couples trying to get domestic partner benefits. In less negative news, an inflammatory attempt to outlaw local nondiscrimiantion statements (specifically targeting Missoula) failed to get traction.

– NEVADA: A number of bills have been advancing to protect transgender Nevadans from discrimination, including in employment and in public accommodations and housing.

– NEW HAMPSHIRE: The year began with concern about Republican super-majorities in both houses of the NH legislature that could override Gov. John Lynch’s veto should they try to repeal marriage equality. Two separate bills were introduced to the House Judiciary Committee, but in early March, the committee voted 15-0 to take any repeal efforts off the table for 2011. Because the bills were not defeated, they will return for another vote in 2012.

– NEW MEXICO: In January, New Mexico Attorney General Gary King issued an opinion saying that same-sex marriages from other states should be recognized in the state, joining NY, RI, and MD as states that do not perform same-sex marriages, but recognize other states’. The opinion sparked opponents to try to pass a ban on SSM, but three such efforts failed in committee in February. A similar measure in the Senate died in committee in March. Supporters of marriage equality have been similarly energized.

– NEW YORK: Marriage advocates believe that “the chances are better than ever to legalize same-sex marriage, even in a Republican-controlled Senate.” Governor Cuomo (D) would like to see a vote by June, but no Republicans have offered their support yet. A Quinnipiac poll finds that support for marriage equality in the state of New York is at an all-time high: 56 percent. A coalition of groups is now working with Cuomo to push a large media campaign.

– NORTH CAROLINA: North Carolina may soon see the end of its reputation as the only southern state without a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. A bill introduced every year to seal the deal has again been reintroduced, but the Republican control of the general assembly means that this year it could actually pass.

– OKLAHOMA: Two bills passed in April altering how civil rights claims are handled in Oklahoma, limiting the window for filing them and the objectivity with which they will be handled.

– RHODE ISLAND: Rhode Island has been a hotbed of activity with bills for full marriage equality in play. Rhode Island already recognizes out-of-state marriages, which are offered by all its neighbors. Governor Lincoln Chafee has offered his support, saying “Our foundation here in Rhode Island was built on tolerance and acceptance, and this is an area I want to move our state forward on, by building on our strengths of centuries ago.” A Brown University poll from 2009 found that 60 percent of state residents supported same-sex marriage, with 63 percent of self-identified Catholics saying they support marriage equality, and only 32 percent opposed. Meanwhile, the local chapter “of the National Organization for Marriage is launching a $100,000 TV advertising campaign” aimed at defeating the legalization of marriage in the state. The bills remain in limbo (though may move soon), but have garnered the endorsement of the RI AFL-CIO and the RI Bar Association, and Vermont’s governor, Peter Shumlin, will testify on their behalf.

– TENNESSEE: A proposed “Don’t Say Gay” bill in the Tennessee Legislature “wants to spell out how schools can introduce sexuality – and only heterosexuality – to your child.” The bill, known as House Bill 229 or Senate Bill 49, says in part: “No public elementary or middle school shall provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality.” It passed out of committee in mid-April. In April, Nashville joined over 100 cities that ban LGBT discrimination in city contracts and the state legislature moved swiftly to advance a bill blocking cities from protecting LGBT people from discrimination.

– TEXAS: Consideration has begun on bills that would decriminalize homosexuality and amend the Healthy and Safety Code to no longer call homosexuality a “lifestyle.” The so-called sodomy laws are not enforceable, having been ruled unconstitutional in Lawrence v. Texas, but they remain on the books nonetheless. An anti-bullying bill advanced out of the Texas House Committee on Public Education in mid-April, though it does not specifically protect LGBT youth.

– UTAH: State Representative LaVar Christensen (R), who pushed through the state’s same-sex marriage ban, has “reintroduced a bill he tried to run in 2006 which prohibits same sex couples from making contractual arrangements such as wills and financial arrangements.” HB 182, slides in under the generic title ‘Voiding Transactions Against Public Policy’ but would “strip even more rights away from the same sex couples who desperately depend on contractual arrangements as Utah denies them any of the inherent protections afforded to any other couple.” A housing and employment nondiscrimination bill got no traction in the state senate.

– VIRGINIA: Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) and his attorney general Ken Cuccinelli both opposed a new provision that would allow same-sex couples in Virginia to adopt and the State Board of Social Services abided by their recommendation and rejected the new provision.

– WASHINGTON: On April 6th, Governor Chris Gregoire (D) today signed a new law that would allow out-of-state same-sex marriages to be recognized in Washington.

– WYOMING: State law already defines marriage as a union between a man and woman, but recognizes marriages performed in other states. Various bills were introduced during the legislative session. A bill that would have ended the recognition of out-of-state same-sex marriages failed in the Senate, but so did a bill that would have legalized civil unions there in  the inaptly named “Equality State.” For all the debated bills that would have advanced or regressed equality—including a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage outright—the legislative session was a wash.