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National NOW Times >> Winter 05-06  >> Article

Victories Abundant in Courts, States for LGBT Community

By Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz, Senior Field Organizer

The LGBT community saw great victories in the courts and the legislatures in the past few months, with the expansion of civil unions, retention of marriage rights, and extension of domestic partner benefits.

Immigration Legislation Covers "Permanent Partners"

The Uniting American Families Act (S.1278) is designed to "provide a mechanism for United States citizens and lawful permanent residents to sponsor their permanent partners for residence in the United States." This legislation, introduced in August by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), would add the words "permanent partner" to the federal Immigration and Nationality Act, resulting in same-sex domestic partners being treated the same as heterosexual spouses for purposes of immigration rights and benefits, including green cards and immigrant visas.

The bill has several Senate cosponsors, and a similar House bill already has 57 cosponsors.

Hate Crimes Bill Passes House, includes Gender Identity

The House of Representatives passed the Children's Safety Act in September, which included the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act. If enacted into law, the amendment’s provisions would extend existing federal hate crimes laws, which already cover crimes motivated by race, color, national origin and religion, to include crimes based on actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, disability or gender identity (including gender-related characteristics). Language on gender identity was added this year to make clear that the legislation applies to hate crimes against transgender people.

The vote on the amendment was 223 to 199, including 30 Republicans. The full bill later passed the House overwhelmingly and is awaiting Senate passage.

Massachusetts and Connecticut Uphold LGBT Rights

Massachusetts activists defeated a proposed constitutional amendment that sought to ban same-sex marriage and replace them with civil unions. The measure was defeated in a September vote of 157 to 39 by the state legislature voting in a joint constitutional convention. Had the amendment survived that vote, it would have been on the statewide ballot in November 2006.

The most striking element of the vote was that it had passed the same legislature a year ago but failed this year because 55 lawmakers changed their votes – a hopeful change that we hope reflects dramatic shifts in societal attitudes.

The fight to preserve marriage equality in Massachusetts, where thousands of same-sex couples have married since May 17, 2004, is far from over. Anti-marriage groups are organizing to place a constitutional amendment on the 2008 ballot that seeks to ban both same-sex marriages and civil unions. They began circulating petitions for that new amendment on Sept. 21. Backers must gather 65,825 signatures and the measure has to pass in two successive sessions of the legislature in order to be placed on the ballot.

In Connecticut, legislation enacted last April made it the second state, after Vermont, to recognize civil unions. The act took effect on Oct.1.

Pennsylvania Sees Historic Lesbian Custody Ruling

In Philadelphia, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania upheld a lower court ruling that awarded custody of twins to a lesbian mother who was not the biological parent, ruling that it would be in the childrens' best interest. The September decision marked the first time a Pennsylvania court had applied the "step-parent" rule to same-sex partners, allowing custody to be awarded to a non-biological parent based on "clear and convincing evidence" that it was in the best interest of the child or children.

Michigan Court Permits Domestic Partner Benefits; Senate Urges Appeal

A Michigan trial judge ruled that Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who is up for re-election in 2006, can provide health insurance to the partners of LGBT state employees without violating the Michigan constitution's same-sex marriage ban. Ingham County Circuit Judge Joyce Draganchuk said in September that the purpose of a 2004 constitutional amendment, on which the opposition to partner benefits was based, was to ban gay marriage and civil unions — not to keep public employers from offering benefits to gay employees.

"Health care benefits are not among the statutory rights or benefits of marriage," she wrote, arguing that health insurance coverage is not limited to those who are married."Health care benefits for a spouse are benefits of employment, not benefits of marriage."

In October the State Senate voted to urge a swift review by the state Supreme Court of Draganchuk's decision, which applied to all public-sector employers.

Schwarzenegger Vetoes Marriage Equality Legislation

Despite heavy pressure from NOW activists and entreaties from Californians that he recognize their families, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a historic same-sex marriage bill on Sept. 29. California's legislature had become the country's first to pass such a law. Responding to statewide outrage at his veto, Schwarzenegger said he could not go against Proposition 22, an anti-marriage initiative passed by voters in March 2000.

"I will not let the legislators tamper with the people's vote," Schwarzenegger said.

Sending a mixed message, the governor did sign four LGBT-friendly bills including the right to receive services, goods and accommodations available to the general public; death benefits for partners of retired public employees; treatment of legally recognized domestic partners as spouses under property tax laws; and adding gender and gender identity to existing anti-discrimination provisions regulating insurance companies and health care service plans.

New York City Extends LGBT Protections

In October, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed legislation extending the city's human rights laws to include discrimination based on "partnership status" — which applies to same-sex and unmarried heterosexual couples.

The new provision expands the city's existing human rights law, which already forbids discrimination against individuals because of age, race, creed, color, national origin, gender, disability, marital status, sexual orientation or citizenship. The changes require the city to investigate complaints of discrimination against individuals on the basis of their domestic partnerships.

Alaska Supreme Court OKs Same-Sex Benefits

In a unanimous ruling, the Alaska Supreme Court, on Oct. 30, 2005, ruled that it is a violation of the state constitution's equal protection clause to refuse benefits to state and city employees' same-sex partners. The case arose from a 1999 lawsuit, filed after state voters passed a constitutional amendment forbidding state recognition of same-sex marriage.

A lower court had ruled that benefits did not have to be extended to same-sex couples since unmarried heterosexual couples were also ineligible for benefits. However, the Alaska Supreme Court said that this analogy was faulty because same-sex couples cannot choose to get married.

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