WEDNESDAY, April 11, 2001 -- Campaign 2002 has begun. The defining issue? Civil unions. Just one day after Jane Swift took office as the acting governor, the Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders filed suit against the Massachusetts Department of Public Health for denying marriage licenses to four lesbian and three gay male couples. The suit is similar to the one filed in July 1997 in Vermont — and litigated by GLAD — that won that state’s gay and lesbian couples the right to civil unions, which provide all the legal protections of marriage offered by the state.
Filed in Suffolk Superior Court, the suit charges that “the custom and practice of denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples violates the Massachusetts Constitution,” says Gary Buseck, GLAD’s executive director. But DPH spokeswoman Roseanne Pawelec says, “We’re a little bit confused as to why the Department of Public Health is being targeted. The Bureau of Vital Statistics has no authority to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. We can’t register something that the law says is not recognizable.”
Last week, when she was mapping out her gubernatorial strategy, Swift announced that she would oppose gay marriage or any similar legal measures, such as civil unions. (She was not available for comment before deadline.) With the filing of the lawsuit, the issue — which polarized the Green Mountain State and became crucial in last year’s state elections — is sure to dominate next year’s gubernatorial race.
Former state senator Warren Tolman, who has declared his candidacy for governor, says he will support the measure. “I support the concept that two people ought to be able to engage in a civil union so they have certain rights — such as bereavement and health insurance and other issues that I think are important,” he says. Tolman is careful to note that he’s talking about civil unions and not marriage. “The question of marriage has religious connotations, and irrespective of what the state does, there are churches that will allow marriages, period. But I look at this as civil unions.”
Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who’s exploring a run for governor, says he’s open to the possibility of granting more rights to gay and lesbian couples. The state has already addressed the question of whether gay and lesbian couples can adopt, he points out, and the question now is whether gay couples can enter into other types of contracts available to married couples. “I’m open to the idea of some standing or some legal status for people who are in relationships,” he says. But, like Tolman, he is careful to say he doesn’t support marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples: “If you mean marriage in the traditional sense, no, I don’t think so.”
Democratic candidate Steve Grossman says he’s concerned about the timing of the suit. “This development may accelerate a ‘defense of marriage’ bill in the legislature, which would be a serious setback on the road to full civil rights to the gay and lesbian community,” he says, referring to a bill filed by Representative John Rogers of Norwood that, if passed, would outlaw marriages or similar legislation for gay and lesbian couples. But, he adds, “As governor, one of my principal responsibilities would be to preserve and to protect the civil rights of all citizens. There, I would work for and sign domestic-partner legislation, as well as civil-rights legislation similar to what my courageous friend Howard Dean recently signed in Vermont.”
State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, who created a clean election bank account in anticipation of a run for governor, says she opposes Rogers’ ‘defense of marriage’ legislation as well as gay marriage rights. But she said in faxed statement that she does support domestic partnership legislation as well as “expanding the legal standing of gay families.” She also points out that she was a member of the “slim majority” in the legislature that passed the gay civil rights bill in 1987.
Talk-show host and former congressman Peter Blute, whose name has been floated for a potential independent candidacy in next year’s election, says he’s against the measure. “I would support the rejection of those applications,” he says. “Nobody’s rights have been violated by the state standing by an interpretation of state law [defining marriage] as an institution between a man and a woman.”
Two other prospective candidates — Senate president Tom Birmingham, and Congressman Marty Meehan — could not be reached for comment before deadline.
In the Vermont case, that state’s highest court ruled that refusal to grant marriage licenses to gay couples violated the state constitution’s common-benefits (equal-protection) clause. The court ordered the state legislature to remedy the situation through either marriage or a marriage-like measure. The legislature opted for the latter, which was signed into law by Governor Dean. If the case follows a similar course in Massachusetts, it will bump up against the powerful House Speaker Tom Finneran. Finneran spokesman Charles Rasmussen wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the case, but he says, “In general, his position is he’s not in favor of legalizing that relationship.”
During last year’s presidential election, the issue of civil unions came up during the vice-presidential debate between Dick Cheney and Joseph Lieberman. Both men said they supported individual states’ rights to pass civil-unions legislation or similar laws. “I think different states are likely to come to different conclusions and that’s appropriate,” Cheney said. “I don’t think there should necessarily be a federal policy in this area.” The question now is whether Bay State pols will be as reasonable in the coming months.