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Making sure there aren't empty campaign promises about equality

An article in the Washington Blade addresses the issue we’ve discussed here time and again — about how presidential candidates have skirted the difficult question of civil unions and parity with marriage.

All of the top tier candidates — Clinton, Obama and Edwards — have publicly expressed their support for gays and lesbians being treated equally, and have taken the position that they believe civil unions are the way to go. Of course we all know — and they know — that civil unions don’t represent equal access to the 1200+ benefits that opposite-sex married couples are entitled to at the federal level. The 1996 DOMA stands in the way.

Under federal law, none of these rights and benefits are available for people in civil unions or other forms of same-sex relationships because the existing law doesn’t recognize such relationships. As far as the federal government is concerned, members of same-sex relationships are classified as “unmarried” or “single.”

Mark Agrast, a gay rights attorney and senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, said it would take an act of Congress authorizing federal recognition of civil unions and most likely the repeal of a section of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, to bring about full federal rights and benefits for same-sex couples joined in civil unions.

DOMA, which Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed in 1996, defines marriage under federal law as a union only between a man and a woman. It also allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

But before we get to any discussion about legislation, the first order of business is to simply get candidates on the record about what course they would take to grant those federal benefits to same-sex couples — since are running and declaring their belief in full equality. As long as they can skate without being asked or answering the question, any public statement about opposing discrimination or being for “equal rights” in this arena is meaningless. 

Here on the Blend, we usually have passionate discussion and debate over whether to path to take — push for full civil marriage equality only, the incremental, separate but questionably equal civil unions route, or both. It’s clear that some of our advocacy organizations are also dealing with this dilemma/opportunity.

“Within our movement, there is an acknowledgement that only marriage constitutes full equality while civil unions are becoming a reality more quickly, causing advocates of equality to ask tough questions about what position to take on civil unions.” [Allison Herwitt, HRC’s legislative director].

Evan Wolfson, executive director of the same-sex marriage advocacy group Freedom to Marry, said it is far too early for gay groups and their allies to push for a federal civil unions recognition bill.

With the 2008 presidential election already drawing widespread publicity, Wolfson said gay advocacy groups and their allies should be asking the candidates to spell out what they mean when they express support for equal rights and benefits for same-sex couples through civil unions.

“When they try to do that, they will realize that there is only one system for doing it and that is marriage,” he said.

Even so, Wolfson argues that the creation of a separate, allegedly equal institution in order to set aside “marriage” (and all that the word conveys in our society as an institution) as an exclusively heterosexual right makes no sense.

I happen to disagree on this one. This full marriage equality question will ultimately be decided in the U.S. Supreme Court — and that is years away, and could easily go the wrong way. In the meantime we are watching a mess unfold at the state level, with marriage in one state (and Massachusetts is still teetering on the edge of an amendment), civil unions in Connecticut, Vermont, and New Jersey, domestic partnerships in California, etc. — and a whole lot of states that have rolled back rights or eliminated the possibility of civil equality in any form with marriage amendments. Civil unions recognized at the fed level will grant rights we currently don’t have at all. It doesn’t stop the march toward full marriage equality.

The presidential candidates need to discuss this patchwork and how it wholly represents inequality targeted at a specific group of taxypaying Americans — these are real legal quandries caused by couples and gay families who have rights in one state — they lose them by simply crossing a state line.

The questions are quite simple:

* Are gay and lesbian couples entitled to all benefits at the local, state and federal levels that are automatically conveyed with civil marriage?

* The federal Defense of Marriage Amendment, passed in 1996 during the Clinton administration, allows states not to recognize CUs. Do you believe that DOMA should be repealed or amended to address this?

* Do you believe that civil rights should be determined “by the people” by direct vote at the ballot box?

Clinton, Obama and Edwards were mentioned in the article — what about the rest of the pack?

Bill Richardson obviously doesn’t believe in equality — he said he stands by his original 1996 vote for DOMA, yet disingenuously said in a speech at a recent HRC gala: “Gay and lesbian families deserve respect.  And, if I’m elected president, [I’ll wage] a principled stand with you to fight for it.” Uh, except that you won’t actually fight for us when it comes to specifics.

Chris Dodd and Mike Gravel are both for the repeal/amendment of DOMA.

See the rest of the pack after the flip…A reminder on where the candidates stand:


* Illinois Sen. Barack Obama
Marriage: No. Civil unions, yes.
DOMA:  when he was running for the Senate in 2004 – “I will vote for its repeal on the Senate floor.” No word on any change so far on the position.

* Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd
Marriage: No. Civil unions, yes.  “I think it ought to happen. To me the country is way ahead of us on these issues. I think the American people are there.”
DOMA: For amending or repeal.

* Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards
Marriage: Nope (it’s a jump for me to get to gay marriage. I haven’t yet got across that bridge). Civil unions, yes (Civil unions? Yes. Partnership benefits? Yes).
— DOMA: no answer so far.

* Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich
Marriage: on the record for full marriage equality
— DOMA: it’s assumed Kucinich would want DOMA amended/repealed if CUs are on the table.

* Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel
Marriage: for full marriage equality (we heard directly from his press sec Alex Colvin here on the Blend)
DOMA: for repeal/amendment of DOMA

* Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Marriage: Wishy-washy. He feels marriage is “inevitable,” and that committed couples are “entitled to any fewer rights than any other American.” Getting there [marriage equality] will “be an incredibly difficult thing for America to grapple with.”
DOMA: He voted for it in 1996; hasn’t commented on his position today.

* New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson
Marriage: Nope. “on the issue of gay marriage, I’m just not there. I want to be honest.”
DOMA: He voted for it in 1996, and stated in Feb 2007 that he still stands by that vote now.

* New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton
Marriage: Nope. It’s between a man and a woman. She’s taken the standard civil unions position (“I believe in full equality of benefits, nothing left out…From my perspective there is a greater likelihood of us getting to that point in civil unions or domestic partnerships and that is my very considered assessment.”)
DOMA: No position taken so far on amending or repeal.


Republicans (slim pickings here)

* Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani
— Marriage: Marriage is between a man and a woman; for civil unions/DPs.
— DOMA: hasn’t commented on his position (that I’m aware of)

* Arizona Sen. John McCain
— Marriage: Voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment, but supported a state amendment in Arizona.
— DOMA: he believes in leaving marriage to the states.

* Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney
— Marriage: Marriage is between a man and a woman; wanted to roll back marriage equality in his home state.
— DOMA: obviously has no problem with it.

* Texas Rep. Ron Paul
— Marriage no (marriage is the union of one man and one woman), civil unions, don’t know.
— DOMA: Haven’t heard a statement.

Don’t even bother asking?:
Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee
California Rep. Duncan Hunter
Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo
Attorney John H. Cox of Illinois
Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson
Former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III

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Pam Spaulding

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