A Gay Rights Milestone
Published on Thursday, April 21, 2005 by New York Newsday / Long Island
A Gay Rights Milestone
Rell Signs Civil Unions Bill; Opponents Call It A Sad Day
by Daniela Altimari

Connecticut became the third state to legally recognize same-sex couples Wednesday, signifying a new era in the gay rights movement and bucking a national trend.

The landmark law permits same-sex partners to enter into civil unions and grants nearly all of the rights and responsibilities available to married couples. Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed the bill late Wednesday afternoon, about an hour after the state Senate gave the measure final legislative approval. It takes effect Oct. 1.

Vermont is the only other state to recognize civil unions. Massachusetts allows gays to marry. But unlike Connecticut, those states were reacting to court rulings.

In the hallway after the 26-8 Senate vote, supporters chatted, smiled and hugged. "It's a great day," said Anne Stanback, president of Love Makes a Family, the gay rights coalition that once dismissed civil unions as an unacceptable compromise. "We commend the legislature for supporting the expansion of rights for all of Connecticut's families."

Sen. Andrew McDonald, co-chairman of the legislature's judiciary committee and one of the law's chief champions, predicted it would improve the lives of thousands of gay couples in Connecticut and reverberate across the nation.

"All families can be uplifted when civil rights are extended in our state," said McDonald, a Democrat from Stamford who is gay. "The vote we cast today will ... send a wave of hope to many people ... across the country."

The new law extends to gay couples the rights and responsibilities married couples have under 588 state statutes, including the right to file a joint tax return and make medical decisions for a partner. The same-sex union is not recognized under federal law or by most other states.

Other states will follow Connecticut's lead, McDonald predicted, "and do it for the right reasons, not because judges are telling them to."

Rep. Michael Lawlor, another longtime supporter of gay rights, called the new law "the biggest thing the Connecticut legislature has done in 50 years."

Opponents don't disagree.

Brian Brown, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, said Wednesday was "a sad day for the state of Connecticut."

Brown, whose group is hosting a major rally against gay marriage Sunday on the grounds of the state Capitol, criticized both the legislature and Rell for "fast-tracking" the measure. There will be repercussions when lawmakers run for re-election in 2006, he said.

"This vote will not be forgotten," Brown vowed. "If the goal was to push this through in a non-election year, they were 100 percent wrong."

Senate Republican leader Louis DeLuca expressed frustration that opponents of the measure were painted as bigots or members of the "radical right."

DeLuca voted against the bill, saying he favors a statewide referendum on the issue.

"I came to this conclusion based on a lot of things," he said. "Everybody is entitled to their opinion."

Connecticut lawmakers have been pondering how to treat same-sex relationships since 2001, when the judiciary committee held an informational hearing on the topic. The following year, lawmakers approved a limited bundle of rights for gay and lesbian couples.

While Connecticut continued to debate the issue, public sentiment was changing elsewhere in America.

When Massachusetts' highest court ruled that gays have a right to marry, opponents objected loudly and in numbers. The mayor of San Francisco performed hundreds of illegal same-sex weddings, further fueling the outrage. Some states had already prohibited gay marriage, and 13 more passed constitutional bans within months.

This year in Connecticut, where Stanback and her allies had sought the right to marry, it became clear as the legislative session wore on that a civil union law was the best they could hope to achieve.

And despite bipartisan support, the bill was only considered politically acceptable after an amendment was added by the House of Representatives that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

That addition was key to winning Rell's signature.

"I have said all along that I believe in no discrimination of any kind and I think that this bill accomplishes that, while at the same time preserving the traditional language that a marriage is between a man and a woman," she said moments after signing the bill.

In the Senate, which two weeks ago passed an earlier version of the bill that lacked the amendment, several lawmakers said they were pleased with the new language.

But Sen. Edith Prague, a Democrat from Columbia, said she found the House amendment "belittling."

Despite her disappointment over the legislature's failure to approve same-sex marriage, Stanback said she was encouraged by the tenor of the debate.

"Today we celebrate," she said. "Tomorrow we go back to the work of explaining why the status and dignity of marriage are as important as the rights themselves."

And while they press for legislative change, gay rights activists are pursuing a legal remedy: Seven same-sex couples filed a lawsuit last year seeking the right to marry.

Opponents of the new law worry that it will bolster legal arguments by same-sex couples that extending the same rights to two classes of people under different names - civil union vs. marriage - is discriminatory.

Lawlor predicted that the General Assembly would take up gay marriage next year - not because a majority of the state is clamoring for it, but because a majority of the state will come to see it as "no big deal," he said.

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.