Title: The USA's complex same-sex relationship laws Credit: Chris Banks Features Friday 2nd April 2004 - 12:00pm1080864000 Article: 206 Rights
With news of same-sex marriages and/or civil unions being allowed, then disallowed, then subject to federal and state politics it's hard to keep up with what's happening at the USA's city, county, state and national levels, so Chris Banks sums up the past few tumultuous months. US President George W Bush didn't quite know what he was in for when he decided to use gay marriage as an election issue this year. With a close eye being kept on Canada, which had seen two states declaring same-sex marriage legal and the government moving to enshrine that in law, talk of an amendment to the US Constitution to ban same-sex marriage was soon on the agenda. Bush was noncommittal at first, hedging his bets. But in his State of the Union address in January, he declared war on gay marriage, threatening “activist judges” who sought to undermine the “sanctity of marriage” by ruling in favour of gay and lesbian couples. The “activist judges” Bush was referring to were in Supreme Court in the state of Massachusetts, who were considering a case brought by several gay and lesbian couples who were seeking to marry. The court had reserved its decision, but while America waited to see if the ruling would mirror recent events in Canada and literally redefine marriage, one city mayor was not prepared to wait. Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco, was an invited guest at Bush's State of the Union address. After coming home, he decided it was time to make his opinion known. A heterosexual Irish Catholic man married for two years, Newsom told his top aides during a staff meeting that he wanted them to explore how the city could start issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. By mid-February, it was all on. The city of San Francisco was issuing marriage licences to gay and lesbian couples, the governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger was threatening legal action, Newsom was receiving death threats, and President Bush came out firmly in support of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. The California Supreme Court put a stop to the celebrations in mid-March, but by then 4,000 same-sex couples had already tied the knot. And Newsom's belligerence had spurred the battle for equality on across America: The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to bar same-sex couples from being issued marriage licences. By May 17, same-sex marriage will be legal in that state. Attempts to ban same-sex marriage at state constitutional level has failed in five states so far, some of which are notorious for social conservatism, including Kentucky, Tennessee, Iowa, Kansas and Minnesota. The state of Maryland has approved a domestic partner registry which allows same-sex partners to make medical decisions for one another. Various small towns in New York state have been issuing marriage licences to gay couples, including New Paltz. Weddings have also been taking place in Albany, the state capital. Charges have been filed against the mayor of New Paltz for allowing the licences to be issued. The attorney-general of the state of New Mexico began issuing marriage licences to same-sex couples last month before being shut down by the county sheriff with an injunction. She is now seeking legal redress to have the injunction lifted so she can continue to marry gay couples. More gay weddings in Portland, Oregon as marriage licences were issued to same-sex couples there, although the state is currently refusing to register the marriages until the legality of same-sex marriage is determined by a court. It would seem that the greatest battles in favour of same-sex couples are being fought in the courts, not through the legislature. Gays and lesbians tired of waiting for government policy to catch up with the reality of society in 2004 have taken their battle to the judges, who are not rewriting law, but are merely doing what they always have done – interpreting the existing laws as they see fit. It has been seven years since a New Zealand couple attempted to gain similar redress through courts here. Perhaps it is time to take a leaf out of the North American book, turn up the heat, and put the focus back on individuals instead of abstract issues of policy. Chris Banks - 2nd April 2004    
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