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U.S. News Archive
December 20 - December 26, 1999





This page contains news for the period Monday, December 20, 1999 through Sunday, December 26, 1999.





<<   December 1999  >>

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Saturday, December 25, 1999

Group sues Wisconsin over marriage coordinator

A story published today in the Star Tribune reports that The Freedom from Religion Foundation has filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging Wisconsin' s plans to hire someone who would work with clergy members to strengthen marriages.

The current state budget includes $210, 000 to hire a "community marriage policy coordinator." The coordinator would help clergy members establish requirements -- such as premarital counseling -- for couples who are planning a church wedding.

According to the story, the lawsuit seeks a court order to declare the program unconstitutional and stop it from being implemented.

The Madison-based foundation said in the lawsuit that the program denies some people equal protection under the law because it does not fund secular marriage counselors or judges who perform marriages.

"The Community Marriage Policy Project entangles church and state, establishes religion, and interferes with the free exercise of religion, all in violation of well-established constitutional rights, " the lawsuit said.

The program would operate out of the state Department of Health and Family Services and use federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families money.

Foundation president Anne Gaylor said that in addition to being unconstitutional, the marriage program would be a waste of poverty-fighting funds.


Thursday, December 23, 1999

State and federal justice departments file briefs in unmarried-couple housing case

The United States Justice Department and the California Attorney General's Office filed briefs today in federal district court seeking to overturn an appellate decision exempting "religious" landlords from housing laws against marital status discrimination. The case is Thomas v. Anchorage Equal Rights Commission.

Earlier this year, a three-judge federal appellate court ruled that landlords who object to unmarried cohabitation on religious grounds do not have to obey state and local laws in Alaska prohibiting marital status discrimination in rental housing. An 11-member appellate panel subsequently granted a rehearing in the case.

The friend-of -court brief of the California Attorney General argues that granting such a "religious freedom" exemption from fair housing laws would be unconstitutional. It says that states have a compelling interest: (1) to eradicate housing discrimination on arbitrary grounds; (2) to protect the privacy of tenants; (3) to prevent violations of the federal constitution's mandate of separation of church and state; and (4) to protect tenants' free exercise of religion.

The brief of the U.S. Justice Department points out that if "religious" exemptions are granted from laws against marital status discrimination, such a precedent could easily be extended to laws against disability or sex discrimination as well.

The court has scheduled oral argument in the case in March.


Tuesday, December 21, 1999

Governor favors comprehensive domestic partnership system in Vermont

A story published today in the Boston Globe reports that the Governor of Vermont wants the legislature to enact a comprehensive domestic partnership act in response to the ruling of the state Supreme Court yesterday.

Ruling that denying marital benefits to same-sex couples violates the state constitution, the court indicated that the legislature should take steps to remedy the constitutional defect. The ruling suggested that a comprehensive domestic partnership system might pass constitutional muster if the legislature declined to remove the gender restriction from formal marriage.

"Whatever system is chosen must conform with the constitutional imperative to provide all Vermonters with the common benefit, protection, and security of the law,'' wrote Chief Justice Jeffrey L. Amestoy.

The story said that Gov. Howard Dean and leaders of the Legislature indicated Monday they would favor a parallel system of domestic partnership instead of gay marriage. But the plaintiff's lawyers said they would seek full marital status from the legislature.

Dean, citing "a clear discomfort in Vermont and elsewhere around the country over gay marriage,'' said the state's political leadership almost certainly would opt for domestic partnership.

"I think the legislature will probably pass a domestic partnership act guaranteeing equal rights,'' the governor said, adding: "There is no possibility a gay marriage act is going to pass.''

State House Speaker Michael Obuchowski was less certain, but said that "domestic partnership is probably more attainable than marriage.''

The court's ruling only requires that the legislature act within a "reasonable period of time.'' But Obuchowski said he expects hearings to begin on the issue early next month, and is hopeful the issue can be resolved before the legislature's scheduled adjournment date of April 1.

Vermont currently gives domestic partner benefits to state employees. That system is open to all unmarried couples who meet eligibility criteria, regardless of whether they are same-sex or opposite-sex partners.

Singles Rights Lobby, the legislative advocacy affiliate of the American Association for Single People, will be asking the Vermont Legislature and Governor to continue with the gender-neutral policy by passing a comprehensive domestic partnership act that is open to all unmarried couples regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

Al Gore responds to Vermont same-sex marriage decision

Vice-President Al Gore issues the following statement yesterday in response to the decision of the Vermont Supreme Court dealing with same-sex marriage.

"I applaud the non-discrimination and equality principles inherent in Vermont's State Supreme Court ruling this morning that same-sex couples must be given the same benefits and protections as different-sex couples. The court's decision rests upon the "constitutional imperative to afford all Vermonters the common benefit, protection, and security of the law.

"I am not for changing the institute of marriage as we have traditionally understood it. But I am for legal protections for domestic partnerships."

Gore did not explain whether he believes domestic partnership should be limited to same-sex couples or whether he favors a nondiscriminatory system open to all unmarried couples regardless of gender.


Monday, December 20, 1999

Vermont Supreme Court rules that state legislature must give protections and benefits to same-sex couples

A story released today by the Associated Press reports that the Vermont Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex couples in that state must be given the same benefits and protections that the legislature has given to married couples of the opposite sex.

The court concluded that it was unconstitutional to deny same-sex partners the benefits associated with formal marriage. However, the court was unwilling -- at least at this stage -- to order the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

However, the court said that the Legislature must do something to remedy the problem, whether it is legalizing same-sex marriage or adopting a comprehensive domestic partnership act. The court said it was giving the legislature a reasonable amount of time to find a way to cure the constitutional defect of the present marriage system.

"We hold that the state is constitutionally required to extend to same-sex couples the common benefits and protections that flow from marriage under Vermont law," the justices said. "Whether this ultimately takes the form of inclusion within the marriage laws themselves or a parallel `domestic partnership' system or some equivalent statutory alternative, rests with the Legislature.

"Whatever system is chosen, however, must conform with the constitutional imperative to afford all Vermonters the common benefit, protection, and security of the law," the court said.

Today's ruling stems from a suit filed in July 1997 by three couples -- two lesbian and one gay -- after they were denied marriage licenses by their local town clerks. The clerks acted on the advice of the state attorney general, who relied on a 1975 opinion by a predecessor calling same sex marriages unconstitutional.

The story notes that the three couples first filed suit in Chittenden County Superior Court but a judge rejected their claims. The couples then appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments in the case 13 months ago.

The couples argued that their inability to get married denied them ore than 300 benefits at the state level and more than 1,000 at the federal level. The Supreme Court acknowledged that, saying the benefits included "access to a spouse's medical, life, and disability insurance, hospital visitation and other medical decisionmaking privileges, spousal support, intestate succession, homestead protections, and many other statutory protections."

The next legislative session in Vermont will no doubt focus much of its attention on the issue of domestic partnership, how to define it, and whether it will be limited to same-sex couples or be open to opposite-sex couples as well.


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