June 2012

Rights for gay couples

Slowly and not-so-steadily, society seems to be moving slowly toward granting same-sex couples the right to join in some form of state-sanctioned union, whether it’s civil union or marriage.

On May 31, a federal appeals court ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law stating that marriage is between one man and one woman, unconstitutionally denies federal benefits to married gay couples.

That ruling almost certainly will be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, and it’s difficult to see how even that conservative body could fail to recognize that same-sex couples must receive the same benefits as heterosexual couples.

Earlier in May, President Obama finally came out and announced that he is in favor of allowing same-sex marriage. Cynics accused him of doing it as an election ploy to garner money and votes from the gay community, and maybe the timing of his announcement was attributable to the campaign, but it seems clear that his inclination has always been to support the rights of gays and lesbians.

Sadly, a number of states, including Colorado, have tried to stem this tide by passing laws or constitutional amendments that attempt to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples only. And many citizens will react to the latest court ruling by saying, “But Congress voted! The people don’t want gay marriage!”

Yes, if it were up to a popular vote, gay unions would be banned many places. But we also have a court system to ensure that laws meet the strict standard set by our Constitution.

Not so long ago, the majority of voters opposed equal rights for blacks and supported segregation. Fortunately, there were courageous leaders who spoke out for change, and judges who voted down discriminatory laws.

Today, we have to rely on similarly courageous leaders and justices to provide gays with fundamental fairness.

A few months back, we criticized our state senator, Ellen Roberts, along with state representatives Don Coram and J. Paul Brown, for voting to increase per diem reimbursements for rural legislators.

Now, in fairness, we’re going to praise Roberts for her stance on a different issue. Her recent support of a bill to allow civil unions in Colorado demonstrated rare thoughtfulness and courage.

The bill would have granted straight and gay couples in the state the right to form state-recognized unions with legal protections and responsibilities similar to those now granted only to married couples — for example, sharing of insurance and pension benefits, rights of inheritance, and the right to make medical decisions for each other. The bill also would have allowed such couples to adopt children more easily and would have required them to pay alimony and child support in the case of break-ups.

The bill never made it to the full legislature, thanks to some last-minute partisan shenanigans, but Roberts voted for it when it came before the Senate Judiciary Committee. She also supported a similar bill last year.

In a blog on her website, she writes, “For me, voting for civil unions is an extension of the 14th amendment of the Bill of Rights, providing for the government’s promise of equal protection of all citizens. Equal protection means to be treated with justice, regardless of an individual’s personal characteristics. . . .

“I believe equal protection means a couple, straight or gay, in a committed relationship, and maybe raising a family, should be able to achieve a status recognized by the government that will provide certain rights and responsibilities.”

It should be noted that Roberts did not say she supports gay marriage. But in supporting civil unions, she bucked the trend among conservatives and Republicans, and she deserves enormous credit for not just going along with the crowd.