Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Marriage Equality Defeated (for now) in Maine

Andrew Sullivan Misreads the Situation in the Pine Tree State

A majority of voters in Maine yesterday chose to repeal the state’s law allowing same-sex couples to get married before it even went into effect, the Bangor Daily News reports here. Following last year’s debacle of Proposition 8 stripping same-sex couples of the right to marry, Maine becomes the second state to have (almost) had equal state-controlled rights for lesbigay persons only to lose them to the expression of fears or prejudice at the ballot box.

Thus Andrew Sullivan is wrong to write in his blog that “in Maine, … gays do have equality but may now merely be denied the name.” Unless he is writing about the abstract moral equality that underlies claims to human rights, or the abstract political equality of persons and citizens ostensibly protected by the U.S. Constitution, Sullivan is simply wrong to assert that lesbigay people in Maine “have equality,” for several reasons.

First, same-sex couples in Maine are now relegated to state registered domestic partnerships but, unlike California’s domestic partnerships, these are decidely weaker than civil marriages. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services, has even cautioned in bold print that "[i]t is important to remember that a registered domestic partnership is NOT the same as a marriage and does not entitle partners to rights other than those for which the registry was intended. This registry is intended to allow individuals to have rights of inheritance as well as the rights to make decisions regarding disposal of their deceased partners remains."

Second, even if Maine attached all the same state-controlled rights, benefits, and obligations of civil marriage to domestic partnerships, the voters’ decision to deny marriage to same-sex couples imposes a legal burden on them that different-sex couples don’t face. When a married couple goes to another state, there is a well established body of interstate marriage recognition law that they can appeal to. Granted, the “Defense of Marriage Acts” (DOMAs) adopted in many states make it harder to invoke this body of law successfully. But same-sex couples in Maine now will face the additional hurdle of having also to argue that their non-marital status should count as a marriage for purposes of this body of law. Likewise, if Congress were to repeal the federal DOMA, which Barack Obama has said he supports, then married same-sex couples would automatically be governed by the estimated 1,138 federal laws that make marital status relevant; same-sex couples from Maine, however, would have additionally to try to argue that their domestic partnership, intentionally distinguished from marriage, should nonetheless be treated as a marriage for federal law purposes.

And third, Andrew Sullivan here seems to be making the same volte-face as the California Supreme Court did this past spring when it upheld Proposition 8 , which stripped same-sex couples in California of the right to marry. When Chief Justice Ronald George wrote for the Court in 2008 in striking down the marriage exclusion as violating the California Constitutionl, the Chief Justice penned eloquent passages about the importance of being included in the institution of “civil marriage” as such for the equality and dignity of lesbigay people. Yet when he wrote for the same court a year later and upheld California’s pernicious ballot measure, his reasoning seemed to many to hold that this was a sufficiently non-fundamental change to the state constitution – even though it targeted a minority group defined by a suspect classification for deprivation of a fundamental right, the right to marry – because the “sole” effect of Prop 8 was to deny same-sex couples the “designation” of “marriage.”

Andrew Sullivan seemed to appreciate the stakes when the California Supreme Court first invalidated the discriminatory marriage exclusion. In his blog mere days after the decision, he wrote:

“Equality is equality is equality. And a marriage license is a marriage license is a marriage license. Calling it something else for a few is a way of saying it is something else for the few, and something lesser for the few. There is no way around this, and in many ways, I am grateful that the California court put it so bluntly.”

Nothing has changed about the nature of equality, so it is not apparent to me why Sullivan seems to have changed his mind about equality in Maine.

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