Monday, March 31, 2008

New England SSM, Not Quite Ripe

Lured to Rhode Island Friday, I eagerly anticipated the symposium The Culture of Same-Sex Marriage in New England. While I didn't get definitive answers, it was well worth the drive for an afternoon on Mt. Hope Bay.

The two panels and keynote speaker had lots of useful and some moving commentary. The sweeping conclusions didn't come, largely because we are still in flux as a region as well as a nation on SSM.

Photo Note: A few images from the afternoon accompany these posts. I apologize here for their so-so or lower quality. It was my first go at a conference setting requiring telephoto and flash. In the future, I'll be even more obnoxious than usual and get closer.

A later post will cover two very different personal tales of 1) what homosexual couples can't get when SSM is illegal, and 2) what they can't get when it isn't ubiquitous.

Gettin' There, Gettin' There

From both legal and political angles, probably the most useful information and opinion was from Jenn Steinfeld (right), Marriage Equality Rhode Island co-chair. She took a bit of the edge off explaining why they don't expect SSM there for another three years.

I'm an impatient sort, but she has a firm grip on the possible. "Thank God for term limits," she said firmly and sincerely. Largely she was referring to Gov. Donald Carcieri, who be out in 2011 as he finishes his second four-year term.

He and R.I. Bishop Thomas Tobin have long records of anti-gay stances and rhetoric. Even when the pro-marriage equality folk have had a majority, but not a veto-proof one, Carieci has stymied bills. For his part, Tobin went beyond preaching against SSM. When the AG said that the state should recognize Massachusetts SS marriages, Tobin' s statement included, "It is clear that the Attorney General’s thinking on this issue has been influenced by the relentless gay agenda so prevalent in our State."

She and Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders attorney Karen Loewy (left) brought the law students and some of the rest of us up to snuff on the oddments of Rhode Island marriage law. Basically, they codified their laws later and lighter; they have a lot fewer marriage-related laws.

This leads to what Steinfeld refers to as a porous border between Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Both she and Loewy have good relations with the R.I. AG Patrick Lynch. They were not surprised a year ago when his office announced that the state should accept Massachusetts marriages as valid.

Search this blog from the box up top for comity to get your fill on the subject.

To those of us 50 miles northeast of Providence the logical first question is why Rhode Island has not become the second state with full SSM. It has few anti-SSM legislators and the voters poll strongly in favor of SSM. From previous research and reporting on this, my best answer is that they don't jump into anything legislatively there. They'll get there, but after the current governor is out.

Elsewhere in New England, we have the same prima facie possibilities:
  • Connecticut legalized civil unions through the legislature. What about SSM?
  • Vermont was first in the nation with civil unions and has eight years of positive experience. What about SSM?
  • New Hampshire made a huge leap last year for civil unions. How far away is SSM?
  • Maine finally beat back the attempts to overturn gay-rights wording is regulations and statutes. They are openly discussion SSM and civil unions. When will it happen?
Loewy, who was co-counsel on Goodridge, has her fingers in the New England states for GLAD. She wasn't too sanguine about a block of SSM states here anytime soon.
  • Connecticut. GLAD argued for full marriage equality before the state Supreme Court ten months ago. Everyone's awaiting that decision.
  • Vermont. Legislative leaders didn't want SSM to be a 2008 election issue, so they decided last summer to study the subject, but not act before 2009.
  • New Hampshire. This state has what Loewy calls "really bad constitutional law," with a DOMA on the books and a ban on gay adoptive parents. However, the real problem is one that may replicate elsewhere as civil unions gain purchase. Loewy said that no one should expect to use civil unions a a wedge to get marriage equality. When a legislature passes civil unions, they don't think of it as a half measure. "They think they're done."
  • Maine. Alas, Mainers are pretty much exhausted. They've come a long way in gay rights. The state does have a form of domestic partnership. SSM is quite a slope up from there. The symposium speakers made no judgments on Maine.
Pending posts will touch on those personal stories, and on getting from Puritanism to SSM.

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laurel said...

I found this interesting:
Loewy said that no one should expect to use civil unions a a wedge to get marriage equality. When a legislature passes civil unions, they don't think of it as a half measure. "They think they're done."

Food for thought. She may be right. On the other hand, no legislature with the exception of CA (twice) has felt the urge/pressure to EVER pass marriage legislation. Not even in sunny MA, where SSM is legal. So in most states we're faced with CUs/DPs or nothing. In WA, if we'd pressed first for SSM, we'd have gotten a constitutional amendment, I'm almost certain of it. It will be interesting to see if NJ and CT equality orgs are successful in shaming their legislatures into upgrading to SSM. NJ in particular seems really good at showing how unequal CUs really are. No legislature wants to be seen as the roadblock to fairness. I do think that they WISH their job was over with CUs, but I also think that with presure we can make them finish what they started.

massmarrier said...

She was being sincere and candid, but I don't like the idea. Thinking over the New Hampshire struggles and legislator's fear or animosity, perhaps there she's right. On the other hand, Vermont's big opposition seems to come from a veto-threatening governor.