On Monday, the California Supreme Court instructed all commercial entities in the state to treat registered domestic partners on par with married couples. The ruling reflects an underreported development in California politics, namely the gradual expansion of the statewide domestic partner registry by the legislature over the last five years.
In its current version, passed in 2003 and effective last January, California grants virtually all the rights of marriage under state control to registered partners. As such, gay couples in the Golden State enjoy the same status as civil union partners in Vermont, albeit under the ambiguous term â€śdomestic partners.â€ť Because that expression has been used as a catchall, covering a range of programs many of which fall way short of marriage, the status of California couples has not attracted the attention it might have.
With its ruling, the California Supreme Court has made crystal clear that the parallel institutions of marriage and registered partnership are now indistinguishable as far as state civil rights law is concerned. The decision came in the case of a 48-year-old San Diego woman who sued her golf club for partner membership benefits.
Unlike married members of the Bernardo Heights Country Club, B. Birgit Koebke had been obliged to use guest passes and pay green fees every time her partner, Kendall French, wanted to join her on the course. By contrast, the club offered free use of its facilities to spouses and minor children. Koebke asked the management to include French as a spouse back in 1995, when the two women became partners. But the club balked at the idea, and eventually, Koebke filed suit with the help of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Koebke argued that the club was guilty of marital status discrimination, and that such discrimination violated the stateâ€™s wide ranging Unruh Civil Rights Act. A lower court, backed by a state appellate court, disagreed, ruling that the Unruh Act does not extend to marital status discrimination.
To make a long opinion short, the high court agreed in principle with the lower rulings. An enterprise may indeed discriminate on the basis of marital status if there is a legitimate business reason for doing so, the justices wrote. However, the unanimous court went on to rule that there could be no such legitimate reason under the Unruh Act for discriminating between a married couple and two registered domestic partners. Unmarried couples, whether gay or straight, can be classified separately, whether on a question of insurance, car rental, or other business offers. But given the scope of the Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act of 2003, there is no longer a legally viable reason to have one set of rules for married couples and another for registered partners. The court cited the legislative record as proof that Californiaâ€™s public policy now lies squarely behind the concept of equal rights for gay and lesbian couples.
The decision, solidifying as it does the marriage-like rights of some 27,000 registered partners in the state, adds another dimension to the complicated civil rights battleground in California.
Same-sex marriage is currently in play in three separate contexts; in the state legislature, in the courts, and through the citizensâ€™ initiative process.
In the legislature, a bill to legalize same-sex marriage is pending in the state senate, which will reconvene in a few weeks.
In the courts, a coordinated series of freedom-to-marry lawsuits are now before a state appellate court. However, both the attorney general and the gay rights lawyers involved in those cases have asked the state supreme court to take immediate review of the litigation. The court has not yet agreed, but is expected to respond fairly soon.
Finally, petitions for two separate proposals to outlaw same-sex marriage in the state constitution have been approved for circulation. Both these anti-gay campaigns aim to put a ballot measure to voters in next Juneâ€™s primary.
One legal analyst, University of Santa Clara Law Professor Gerald Uelmen, told the L.A. Times that Mondayâ€™s ruling could muddy the waters of the pending court case. According to Uelmen, when the high court is eventually faced with the question of marriage rights, they might point to their own opinion in the golf course case as proof that registered gay couples are no longer unequal to their married counterparts, and that the state has already extended all the rights of marriage under its control to same-sex unions. It would then be up to GLBT advocates to make the case that separate is never equal, and that marriage itself carries intangible qualities that the most generous domestic partner registry can never match.
â€śAt the end of the day,â€ť said Lambda legal director Jon Davidson, â€śour clients are still left as second class citizens because they are barred from the right that would have eliminated the need for this case in the first placeâ€”the right to marry. We won an important battle today, but we need to continue to fight the fight.â€ť
Time Is Not On Our SideGood morning, readers. I estimate that I have approximately 95 minutes before my colleagues start wondering where the hell this column is, and further calculation suggests I must write just over 12 words per minute in order to meet, what we call in the business, the â€śdrop dead deadline.â€ť Sure, it would have been easier to do this yesterday, but letâ€™s just say itâ€™s not in my personality to take the less traveled road. Instead, I follow in the proud tradition of my fellow hacks, serving up whatever emerges from the pressure cooker that is the impending press run.
This morning, we will turn coals into diamonds of glittering GLBT news prose under the weight of collapsing time, and my editors will never know that these gems disguise a self-indulgent afternoon of googling and talking on the phone. They will no doubt think I slaved hour upon hour to produce this terse masterpiece of complex reportage. Donâ€™t tell them otherwise!
Bad Speaker, No DonutFirst, itâ€™s back to Oregon, where activists were trying last week to revive the civil unions bill in the house, after the evildoer GOP speaker, Karen Minnis, consigned it to oblivion the previous week. But once again, Minnis and company managed to gut the measure. Then, on Tuesday night, Minnis pulled another ugly rabbit out of her black hat, and engineered a rules change to prevent the Democratic minority lawmakers from bringing the original bill back in the final days of the legislative session. Bottom line, civil unions in the Beaver State are once again dead for this year.
Do you think â€śugly rabbitâ€ť is an oxymoron? I do. Rabbits and the other small mammals of the forest are inherently cute. Do you know that some voles mate for life? That piece of information came up in a previous gay news column devoted to wide-ranging topics of common interest. I recall it from years back because I gave it the memorable headline: â€śKiss me, you vole.â€ť
Itâ€™s Raininâ€™ InitiativesIn California as promised, the conservo-creeps at voteyesmarriage.com have sued Attorney General Bill Lockyer, after bending themselves into pretzels over the summary and title he issued for their proposed constitutional amendment. The measure is titled: â€śMarriage. Elimination of Domestic Partner Rights. Initiative Constitutional Amendment,â€ť and Lockyerâ€™s formal summary notes that the language they hope to smear all over the June 2006 primary ballot would in fact retract dozens of rights and responsibilities now enjoyed by same-sex couples under the stateâ€™s domestic partner registry. The truth hurts, it seems, and they are agonizing over the â€śunfairâ€ť and â€śbiasedâ€ť description. Poor things.
Meanwhile, two competing anti-gay ballot proposals from â€śprotectmarriage.comâ€ť have just been cleared for takeoff by Lockyerâ€™s office. Unlike the verbose text elaborated by the folks at voteyesmarriage.com, both of these initiatives are one-sentence long. The more harmful of the two reads: â€śA marriage between a man and a woman is the only legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.â€ť The other says, â€śOnly a man and a woman in a lawful marriage shall have the legal status of married spouses in California.â€ť Itâ€™s a bit perplexing. Maybe the strategy is to throw a ton of shit through the elective fan and hope that some of it sticks in the state constitution.
Judging Dawn and Kathy
Keep an eye out in a week or so for an interesting ruling out of Tulsa from the Cherokee Nation Judicial Appeals Tribunal. On Tuesday, the court heard arguments on behalf of two members of the tribe, Dawn McKinley and Kathy Reynolds, who received a marriage license and exchanged vows in a perfectly legitimate process last May. Since Oklahoma recognizes Cherokee marriage licenses, it appeared for awhile that the women were legal spouses.
When the couple tried to certify the marriage, a routine process, they were hit with an injunction by a tribal judge. Then, into the picture barged Cherokee attorney Todd Hembree, who sued to have the marriage voided (despite the fact that he does not seem to have legal standing to intervene). The Tribal Council promptly voted to annul the union, and to bar gay marriages explicitly to make sure the specter of same-sex couples formally pledging their lifelong devotion does not rear its offensive head in the future. McKinley and Reynolds went to court, lost a motion for summary judgment, and are now appealing to the higher tribunal with the help of the ubiquitous National Center for Lesbian Rights.
A Pollyanna Moment
You know, thatâ€™s just one case. But there are cases and cases and cases out there. Dominos are falling as fast as these sanctimonious prigs can reposition them, not just in terms of marriage and not just in the courts. One of my stories this week, which I was going to ditch under pressure, involves a swimming club in Pasadena that took one look at the recent California Supreme Court ruling (read national news, why doncha?) and immediately took action to offer spousal membership fees to domestic partners. â€śThatâ€™s the law now, and weâ€™re happy to do it,â€ť the clubâ€™s attorney told the Pasadena Star-News.
Even our defeats are victories. You should read the editorials throughout the Oregon press, bashing the legislature for its failure to pass civil unions. Or look at the story out of Southern Georgia, where the regionâ€™s largest billboard company has refused to post an innocuous ad campaign, called something sweet like â€śWe Are Your Neighbors,â€ť from Georgia Equality. The ads, which have been running in the Atlanta area, feature characters like a lesbian doctor or gay firefighter, saying something on the order of â€śI care for you, and I am gay.â€ť We can thank Lamar Advertising, who by rejecting the billboards in rural parts of the state because of the words â€śgayâ€ť and â€ślesbian,â€ť gave the campaign more free positive publicity than it would have garnered on its own.
I could go on. Little cheerful things pop up every week, like the story at the Utah motor vehicles division, where bureaucrats reversed course and approved three gay friendly license plates for a mother of a lesbian daughter who wanted to display her PFLAG sentiments to her fellow roadsters. I didnâ€™t understand why she needed three different plates, but what the hell. And weâ€™ve got two gay mayors in southern California, a temporary lesbian head honcho in San Diego who will serve until early December, and the gay mayor of Chula Vista who spontaneously popped out of the closet during a pride event last week (see cover stories, this issue and last).
Only in Kansas
Now Iâ€™m in such a happy-go-lucky mood that Iâ€™m going to skip all the horrific news from Iran and Nigeria about executing young gay men, and end my column on an upbeat item sent to me by my unofficial editorial assistant, Armand in LA. This week, Armand informs us that a woman in Lake Saint Louis, Kansas is suing a Dennyâ€™s franchise after burning her buttocks on the toilet. Kathlene Williams allegedly sat on cleaning fluid, and, her lawyer says, she is now in constant pain, the AP reports.
â€śAnn,â€ť Armand writes in a personal note, â€śthere are some that might think that the woman has a bad-ass attitude. The bottom line to Dennyâ€™s is: You can feed that woman but leave her ass alone!!!!!!!â€ť
OK OK. Itâ€™s not funny. Itâ€™s the best Armand and I can do for the time being.
â€” TXT Newsmagazine