Opinion: Proposed Civil Union Bans and Equality Under the Law

By Jasmine Alinder


Proposed amendments to ban same sex marriage and domestic partnerships – gay and straight — are back. My home state of Wisconsin is one of 8 states in which such a proposal will appear on our midterm election ballots. Two weeks ago I found myself knocking on doors in my community for Fair Wisconsin, a group dedicated to keeping such an amendment out of our constitution. I don’t canvass lightly. In fact, I have a slight fear of strangers, so I only do this when I feel strongly about an issue. And I’ve thought a lot about why I find this proposed marriage ban so offensive. After all, I happen to be a straight, middle class, married woman. So such a ban does not threaten my right to marry or my access to domestic partner benefits. But it does threaten one of my most deeply held beliefs: equal treatment under the law.

Same sex marriage recognized by the state is one of the critical civil rights issues of the 21stcentury.  But it is also a bit of political bait and switch. It’s a way to entice voters to the polls in large numbers by appealing to their sense of morality (the bait), but doing so with a trumped up moral imperative designed to get more votes in the columns of conservative candidates whose names will appear on the same ballot (the switch).

Let me explain.  Currently, in the state of Wisconsin gay marriage is NOT legal. So if it is illegal, why do we possibly need an amendment saying so? The amendment is redundant, extra law, which in my mind is a good conservative argument for refusing it (as in, we need less government intervention, not more).

I’ve spoken with some folks, however, who feel that the idea of same sex marriage is incompatible with their religious faith. And because of this, they support such a marriage ban. It is important to keep in mind, however, that there are clear distinctions between civil marriage and religious marriage. And because we are a nation founded on the principle of the separation between church and state, the two forms of union are also separate. In other words, civil marriage for same-sex (or heterosexual) couples does not have any bearing on, nor is of any threat to religious marriage. I doubt that the Catholic church, for example, under whose blessing I was married, will be proposing to allow same sex marriage any time soon. But the laws that govern our state and our nation are not the same as those that govern the church. The state is not in the business of legislating religious beliefs but rather of supporting ALL citizens in their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

In addition, this proposed amendment goes beyond a redundant ban on same-sex marriage, it also targets people in committed relationships who are not married. Here is the wording that will appear on my ballot:

Marriage. Shall section 13 of article XIII of the constitution be created to provide that only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state and that a legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized in this state?

The second part of this long, complicated sentence asks us to withhold domestic partnership rights for unmarried couples, gay AND straight. Straight couples, who have the legal right to marry, often decide not to for a host of reasons. And given divorce rates, forcing people into marriage seems unwise.  Most of us have such friends, family or colleagues who are in loving, committed relationships, who need and deserve access to things like healthcare, retirement benefits, and hospital visitations. My brother and his partner, for example, have been together for nearly ten years and have three daughters. They are not legally married. Can you imagine what it would be like if he were not permitted to see her in an emergency room because they aren’t “married”?

I would like to conclude by going one step further. These amendments are in fact not about “gay marriage” at all. We aren’t voting FOR gay marriage. That is not what is proposed. But you have to ask yourself, given the previous arguments, what could be so wrong with same sex marriage recognized by the state? Whenever rights, in this case the right to marry, are being denied a group of citizens, those of us who have those rights must take heed. Why are we discriminating against a group of people based on sexual orientation? What makes me worthy of civil union, but my gay sister unworthy? Is she less of a human being than I? Less capable of love than I? Less nurturing to her child than I? She is not.

If this rhetoric sounds familiar, it should. These arguments echo those made in the 1960s on behalf of civil rights legislation for African Americans, and others discriminated against on the basis of race. So it should not be surprising that on the web page of “Freedom to Marry” (freedomtomarry.org), Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), the famous civil rights leader, is featured speaking eloquently to the issue of same sex union: “Marriage is a basic human right. You cannot tell people they cannot fall in love. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say when people talked about interracial marriage and I quote, ‘Races do not fall in love and get married. Individuals fall in love and get married.’… I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation.” As Lewis himself says, the issues at stake in the marriage debate mirror the issues that were at stake during the civil rights era. I’ll assume that it’s safe to say that we would all imagine ourselves on the side of John Lewis in the 1960s, and it’s time to do the same now.


Jasmine Alinder
Milwaukee, WI
October 30, 2006


Jasmine Alinder is a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee whose scholarship has often focused on civil liberties concerns. She is a volunteer for FAIR Wisconsin atwww.fairwisconsin.com. Her husband took care of their five-year old daughter during last week’s canvass, but this week her daughter wants to knock on some doors, too.

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