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Legislators in Pennsylvania and Minnesota mull civil unions, albeit with very different motivations

Civil Unions Marriage equality

By Jacob CombsPennsylvania state seal

Earlier this week, Mark Cohen, a Democratic Pennsylvania state legislator from Philadelphia, introduced a bill that would allow same-sex couples in the state to enter into civil unions.  Cohen’s bill, HB1178, contains language that “would amend Title 23 (Domestic Relations) of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, in marriage, adding a definition; and providing for civil unions.”

Cohen’s legislation has the support of 27 other members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.  The chamber has 203 members, with Republicans holding the advantage with 109 seats to Democrats’ 93.  HB1178 has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, which has 15 Republican members and 10 Democratic members, and will likely face an uphill climb in the House as well as the state Senate, where Republicans hold a 27-23 majority.

In a press release issued Wednesday, according to Philadelphia Magazine, Cohen called civil unions a “middle-of-the-road compromise position between constitutionally banning and permitting gay marriages,” implicitly acknowledging that equal marriage legislation would have no hope in the Pennsylvania legislature.  In the release, Cohen explained that his bill would create civil unions that afforded the full rights (but, of course, not the designation) of marriage to same-sex couples.  The legislation would also establish reciprocity under state law for same-sex couples to have any marriage or civil union license from another state recognized as a civil union in Pennsylvania.

In Minnesota, meanwhile, Republicans have continued to push for civil unions as an alternative to a proposed marriage equality bill that was approved in mid-March by committees in the both the state House and Senate and is now pending full floor votes in both chambers.  An initial piece of legislation introduced in early April would have provided same-sex couples with civil unions but not full marriage rights; a new bill introduced this week would effectively end civil marriage in the state, providing all couples with civil unions regardless of sexual orientation and leaving the term ‘marriage’ for religious ceremonies.

One Democratic representative, Kim Norton, who had originally backed the first civil unions bill but later withdrew her support, told KAAL-TV she would be backing the new legislation.  “It makes certain that every Minnesotan couple gets a civil union in the state of Minnesota and that marriages are left to the churches that are offering them,” Rep. Norton told the station.  “Some people have got[t]en hurt by my decision to sign this on, but as I think I’ve shared with you before, I have not found a majority of folks in my community with one opinion.”

It’s safe to say that any bill which essentially abolished the institution of civil marriage would pose significant problems of public policy–not to mention the fact that such a bill could very well be unconstitutional.  Consider, for example, the issue of federal benefits, for which married couples are eligible but couples in civil unions are not.  Would Minnesota’s proposed law prohibit any of its residents from accessing these benefits?  The bill would also pose significant problems for married couples who moved to Minnesota, whose marriages would theoretically be converted into civil unions.  In short, the situation would lay fertile ground for an equal protection challenge.

As this week’s developments in Pennsylvania and Minnesota demonstrate, civil unions are still seen by lawmakers as a useful tool.  In Pennsylvania, the utility of civil unions manifests as a pro-LGBT representative seeing them as a more feasible political lift in a Republican-dominated legislature.  In Minnesota, it takes the form of anti-LGBT lawmakers using civil unions to siphon support away from legislation that would provide full marriage equality.

But while some lawmakers may see civil unions as a safe alternative to equal marriage rights–or even a bulwark against their implementation–the people may increasingly be of a different mindset.  In a new poll published this week, Public Policy Polling found that 50 percent of Colorado voters support the civil unions bill that was approved in March, with only 38 percent of voters opposing it.  Surprisingly, PPP’s poll found that voters in the state actually were more supportive of marriage equality than civil unions, albeit not by much: 51 percent were in favor of equal marriage rights and 43 percent were opposed.  As is always the case when viewed through the lens of generational divides, voters who were younger than 30 supported marriage equality by a margin of 74-17 percent.

This probably means full marriage equality isn’t too far away in Colorado, which would mirror other states (such as Illinois, Hawaii, Rhode Island and Delaware) that have seen pushes for equal marriage rights just a few years after legalizing civil unions.  As opponents of marriage equality begin to see civil unions as the last line of defense against marriage equality, they may well find that voters have very little appetite for any ‘middle-of-the-road’ legal status that effectively creates a separate but equal regime.

Update (3:40 p.m. Eastern): Thanks to Seth from Maryland for pointing this out in the comments: A new Survey USA poll finds 51 percent of Minnesota voters support marriage equality, with 47 percent opposed.


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