Gay-rights advocates gain ground

by Tammy Tucker

Gay-rights advocates won two key battles this week.
Vermont passed the nation’s first law legalizing same-sex unions Tuesday but stopped short of equating those unions with traditional marriages. Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in the case of James Dale, a New Jersey Eagle Scout assistant scoutmaster, who was banished from the Boy Scouts for being gay.
While these events seem to break new ground, the rights and protections of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Minnesotans and University students will still be determined by the state.
Same-sex unions
The Vermont law grants same-sex couples many of the legal rights and benefits of marriage, including making medical decisions for partners and protection from testifying against each other in court.
Domestic partners will also assume each others’ debt, and breakups will be treated like divorces in court.
But the legislation makes it clear same-sex unions are not marriages. Such unions are obtained through a license, as well as certification from either a justice of the peace or a religious leader.
“In the U.S., one can be married in a church without having a legal marriage and vice versa,” said Bart Cannon, public policy coordinator of OutFront Minnesota, a GLBT advocacy organization.
Religious communities can choose not to perform any marriage they want, he continued.
Since same-sex unions are not marriages, they do not have to be recognized by other states or the federal government. People registered as domestic partners in Vermont do not have the same rights in Minnesota. And even in Vermont, they are not granted federal benefits.
There are more than 1,000 laws that dictate the rights of marriage. When these rights are broken down into smaller pieces, people have less rejection to it, Cannon said.
For instance, if asked whether or not same-sex partners should be allowed to visit each other in the hospital, most people would say yes, he explained.
Yet, 62 percent of those polled in a February 1999 Gallup poll said same-sex marriages should not be given the same rights as opposite-sex marriages.
While Minnesota prohibits discrimination against GLBT people, it does not recognize domestic partnerships as legal unions — curtailing the University’s attempts to offer domestic partner benefits to its employees, said Beth Zemsky, the University’s GLBT Programs director.
University employees are technically state employees, and the state hasn’t recognized those relationships yet, Zemsky said.
The University has extended some benefits to domestic partners, including dental insurance and health insurance reimbursement, which is long and arduous and not considered full compensation.
Additionally, the University offers domestic partner health coverage for students and in-state tuition rates to out-of-state domestic partners of in-state residents, Zemsky said.
As a retiring University English professor, Toni McNaron has run into numerous problems because the Internal Revenue Service won’t recognize her partner of 22 years for tax purposes, she said.
“If I died tomorrow, my partner would get a letter from the University including a check for my entire retirement, and after 36 years it is a good bit of money,” McNaron began. “Of course, what kicks in is windfall profit taxes.”
This one-time tax could exceed $100,000, McNaron said. A legal spouse would be able to get a monthly check without the drastic taxes.
If given the opportunity, McNaron said she and her partner would get married, including all the responsibilities of marriage such as shared debt and divorce proceedings if they were to break up.
“I don’t want anything special,” she said.
There is a great deal of opposition to legalized same-sex unions in Minnesota. In 1997, the Legislature passed a statute limiting marriage to a union between one man and one woman.
But the city of Minneapolis does have limited recognition. Same-sex couples can register as domestic partners with the city. But the registration has little legal impact, Cannon said.
Gay Boy Scouts
The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday to rule if the Boy Scouts of America can prohibit GLBT people from being troop leaders.
James Dale, a New Jersey assistant scoutmaster, was barred from the Boy Scouts in 1990 when a newspaper identified him as gay. He sued under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in public organizations.
The Boy Scouts contend they are a private organization and, thus, have the right to bar people who do not agree with their message. Homosexuality is against their “clean” and “morally straight” creed, they contend.
That, said University law professor Jim Chen, is at the heart of the case.
“It’s more about the right of an organization to define itself in conflict with a state or local law that grants civil rights protection to GLBT people,” Chen said.
And that right depends on whether the organization is public or private, he said.
Lower courts ruled the Boy Scouts were a public organization, partly because they used public school facilities and because they have traditionally accepted all boys.
Since New Jersey, like Minnesota, protects GLBT people from discrimination, this case will determine whose authority is dominant: the organization or the state, Chen said.
If the court rules in favor of the scoutmaster, Chen said, in any state with statutes banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, an organization could not deny GLBT people membership or leadership positions.
This would also apply to the University, Chen said. A student organization could not deny access to any student covered under the University’s non-discrimination policy.
If the court rules for Dale, Chen said, a public university’s campus women’s organization, for example, couldn’t bar men.
If the court rules for the Boy Scouts, “it will put some real limits on the ability of local governments, public universities and states to require private organizations to open up membership,” Chen said.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule on Boy Scouts of America v. Dale in July. Justices have split on discrimination issues in the past, Chen said, so there is no way to predict how the court will rule.
Either way, the ruling will only affect states with non-discrimination statutes. In states with no protection for GLBT people, the point would be moot, Chen said.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.