Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

March 13, 2006  



Reciprocal beneficiary laws mask a larger political battle

by Thomas F. Coleman

A bill in Colorado designed to give various legal protections to "reciprocal beneficiaries" gained media attention recently when conservative leaders split on whether to support it. 

James Dobson of Focus on the Family gave his approval to SB 166 and had his organization lobby actively for its passage.  Paul Cameron of the Family Research Institute came unglued and lashed out with a furor.  Cameron said that Dobson had "come off the tracks" of the Christian movement. 

What's all the fuss about? 

The reciprocal beneficiary bill would give a few legal benefits to two unmarried adults who are not eligible to marry each other, such as blood relatives or same-sex couples.  Among the protections are rights to hospital visitation, medical decision making, disposition of remains, inheritance without a will, and worker's compensation survivor benefits. 

Cameron is a staunch foe of "gay rights" and does not want the Legislature to extend any legal recognition of any kind whatsoever to same-sex couples.  He would prefer that gay life partners be considered strangers to each other in the eyes of the law. 

Dobson is also against "gay rights" and is a firm opponent of gay marriage or anything similar to it, such as domestic partnerships or civil unions.  But Dobson is also a sharp political strategist who knows when to give an inch in order to achieve a larger victory for his conservative cause.

Last month, Democrats in the Colorado Legislature introduced HB 1344, a domestic partnership bill which, if approved by voters, would grant a wide range of benefits and protections to same-sex couples. 

Fearful that a domestic partnership law might squeak through the Legislature and get a nod from the voters, Republican leaders developed the "reciprocal beneficiary" counter-proposal.  The strategy: throw a few scraps from the table and same-sex couples won't look so undernourished to voters.  And in order to avoid looking "pro-gay" in any way, the bill included any two people who were precluded from marriage, such as blood relatives.

Dobson and his Focus on the Family group apparently felt that moderate legislators could be persuaded to vote against the domestic partner bill if they had some political cover.  They would not look mean spirited if they could vote for an alternative which provides some basic legal protections in a limited number of situations.

This is not the first time that a "reciprocal beneficiary" measure has been introduced in an attempt to derail a more comprehensive bill giving rights to unmarried couples.  The tactic was first developed in Hawaii and later used in Vermont.

In Hawaii, the state Senate had passed a comprehensive domestic partnership law, in response to a ruling by the Hawaii Supreme Court that denying marriage rights to same-sex couples might be unconstitutional.  Conservatives in the state House of Representatives refused to back the partnership law, offering up instead a "reciprocal beneficiary" bill to give a number of rights and benefits to any two adults who could not legally marry.  Eventually, the bill passed when moderates in the Senate shifted support to the House alternative.

Vermont also has a "reciprocal beneficiary" law on its books.  It passed when the Legislature there was considering what to do in response to a ruling by the state Supreme Court which virtually ordered lawmakers to legalize same-sex marriage or at least pass a comprehensive domestic partnership law.  Under that ruling, failure to adopt a domestic partnership law would result in a court-ordered same-sex marriage statute.

Because they had a judicial gun to their heads, moderate legislators felt compelled to vote in favor of the comprehensive domestic partnership law, which they renamed "civil union."  The "reciprocal beneficiary" bill also passed as a polite gesture to conservatives.

Left out of the debate in Hawaii and Vermont, and now Colorado, is the legal status of unmarried heterosexual couples.  They have been consistently excluded from the definition of "reciprocal beneficiaries" in these states since they are eligible to marry.  They are also excluded from "domestic partnerships" or "civil unions" because they are not gay.

Like it or not, to the scores of opposite-sex couples who are delaying marriage or who would prefer being considered domestic partners rather than spouses, the political message seems apparent: let them eat wedding cake. 

God forbid that unmarried heterosexual couples should have a legal option other than marriage.

Unmarried America 2006

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.