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Time for civil unions -- at least

December 2, 2011
Delegate John Doyle - Columnist , Shepherdstown Chronicle

During the legislature's next regular session, which begins on Jan. 10, I will sponsor a bill to permit lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples to enter into civil unions.

A "civil union" allows a couple some or all of the benefits of marriage without the name. Some folks refer to it as "marriage light."

The bill I will introduce would, if passed, allow all of the benefits of marriage, not just some of them. It would be similar to the gay marriage law recently passed by the State of New York. That law allows gay "marriage," but permits any organization who opposes gay marriage on religious grounds to refuse to recognize the union of a couple under that law.

Hey, I concede we're already into semantics here. But in passing legislation semantics make the world 'go round. And speaking of semantics, I hope you won't mind me using, in the interest of efficiency, the term "gay" in the rest of this column to mean everyone who would be interested in a same-sex marriage.

I'm personally OK with allowing same-sex couples to legally marry and use that term. For several years I favored civil unions that permit all the benefits of marriage but wasn't able able to bring myself to support using the term "marriage." Why?

I have many friends (and many more constituents) who don't mind LGBT couples entering into legal unions but think the term "marriage" has a religious meaning as well as a civil one. I respect that position, even though a couple "married" by a judge or a sea captain has entered into a "marriage" that might not be recognized as such by all religions. So, out of that respect I have declined, until now, to favor gay marriage. I changed my mind a few months ago.

So why do I not now choose to call the bill I will introduce "marriage" instead of "civil union?" Semantics, of course. I don't know how much chance my bill will have of passage, but it has a heck of a lot better chance of passing if it's called a "civil union" bill than if it's called a "gay marriage" bill.

I actually wanted to introduce such a bill three years ago. At that time I was, as I indicated above, unable to bring myself to support gay "marriage." That would not have made any difference in the bill's substance.

I was talked out of introducing such a bill by many active supporters of LGBT rights. They were afraid that the introduction of a civil union bill would make passage of a bill that would guarantee that LGBTs could not be discriminated against in housing or employment (called the "anti-discrimination" bill) even more difficult than it was. It was already quite difficult. I've been a sponsor of the anti-discrimination bill for several years, and the lead House sponsor for the last two years. I've also sponsored for many years a bill which would add crimes against LGBTs and the disabled to the list of crimes subject to our state's hate crimes statute.

Well, it's now been three years and we haven't passed the anti-discrimination bill. Twice it's passed the State Senate, due in large part to the efforts of Sen. Jeff Kessler (chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee the two years it passed and now President of the Senate). But it's never been brought up for a vote in the House of Delegates. I think it's time for a different strategy, and many supporters of LGBT rights have told me they agree.

Perhaps introduction of the civil union bill will spur passage of the anti-discrimination bill. Or, conversely, perhaps some folks who don't want to vote for the anti-discrimination bill will consider voting for the civil union bill as a lesser alternative. Passage of either would be a great victory for civil rights.

-?Delegate John Doyle is a regular columnist for The Chronicle. His opinions are his own and not that of paper's. You can reach him at



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