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Top 10 Stories of 2009 in Gay Couples Law

A lot happened in 2009 in gay couples law. Both on a state and national level, the year brought many changes, good and bad, for same sex relationships. Despite the political setbacks towards the end of the year, it's hard to complain when 3 states that didn't allow gay marriage now do. Here's my list of the top 10 legal stories from 2009.

10. Obama Extends Some Health Care, Other Benefits to Domestic Partners of Federal Employees

Under fire for not doing anything for the gay voting bloc that supported his election, Obama finally made his first overture by extending some benefits to federal employees. Still, the move was mostly political and didn’t substantially affect federal employee rights. For that, stay tuned next year on the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act, which just got voted out of committee in Congress. 

9. Congress Amends the Hate Crimes Act to Include Sexual Orientation as Protected Class

While not specifically affecting gay couples rights, the amendment nevertheless was the first federal law that granted, instead of took away, gay rights. The move showed that Congress might further expand gay rights and eventually repeal DOMA. 

8. Colorado and Nevada Pass Limited Domestic Partnership Laws

Nevada became the 17th to recognize domestic partnerships. While it's not entirely everything-but-marriage, (the state doesn't make employers provide benefits to the domestic partners of employees, for example), the law does give domestic partners most of the benefits of legal spouses in the state. The legislature had to override the governor's veto to get the law through. Colorado, on the other hand, passed an even more limited law, granting gay couples some estate planning benefits. 

7. New York Senate Rejects Gay Marriage

Both the New York state assembly and the governor said gay couples should be able to get married. But in December the state senate said no. As New York has one of the highest gay populations in the country, gay marriage there would have been almost as important as marriage in California. 

6. D.C. Council Votes to Legalize Gay Marriages and Recognize Ones From Other States

Lots of people in D.C. are from somewhere else. That made the D.C. out-of-state gay marriage recognition law passed in May more important than those kind of laws usually are. But not content to let other jurisdictions have all the fun, the D.C. Council voted to legalize gay may marriages performed in the district too. We won’t see the outcome of this second law until next year after opponents of same sex marriage sue to block it.

5. California Supreme Court Upholds Proposition 8

Most of the legal battle surrounding Proposition 8, the voter referendum that overturned California gay marriage, happened in 2008. But it ended this year when the Supreme Court upheld the referendum. Still, Governor Schwarzenegger did sign a bill recognizing the marriages of gay couples from before Proposition 8 was approved.

4. Washington Passes Everything-But-Marriage Law, Citizens Affirm Through Referendum 71

If all that happened was that the state legislature passed Bill 5688, granting domestic partners in the state the rights of married couples, this story would still have made the list. But who can forget the Referendum 71 legal war, making national news with battles over whether the referendum could be blocked, whether signatories could be revealed, whether the signatures were even valid, and whether its wording was too confusing. But at the end of the day, state voters approved the referendum, letting the domestic partnership law stand.

3. Wisconsin Passes Domestic Partnership Law Despite Constitutional Ban on Gay Marriage

This state’s passage of a domestic partnership law was particularly important because the state’s constitution bans same-sex marriage. It showed how a state legislature could work against a constitutional ban on gay marriage to still provide gay couples with legal rights enjoyed by married couples. This is important, because many states have such a ban in place. The legislature had to provide fewer rights to gay couples than it wanted to prevent domestic partnerships from looking too much like gay marriages, which the state constitution bans. As a result, Wisconsin gay couples don’t get everything-but-marriage, but they still have more than they did before.

2. Maine Passes Same Sex Marriage Law, Voters Overturn It

Back in May, it looked like Maine would be the 6th state to allow gay marriage. This would have been the first state to legalize gay marriage through the legislature instead of through the courts. But state voters said otherwise. Just like every other time gay marriage has been put up to a popular vote, they approved a referendum that overturned the law.

1. Iowa, New Hampshire, and Vermont Legalize Gay Marriage

While the same sex marriage law in New Hampshire won’t actually take effect until the new year, gay couples in Iowa and Vermont can get married today. The addition of three states to the list of those allowing gay marriage makes 2009, despite setbacks in other states, overall a very good year for legal rights of gay couples.

[Cross-posted at the Gay Couples Law Blog, which discusses same sex family law, estate planning, and taxes.]  

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Gideon Alper

Gideon Alper


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