Conn. bill would update law for same-sex marriage

HARTFORD, Conn. — As Connecticut lawmakers consider updating state law to conform with a court ruling that allows same-sex marriages, opponents of gay marriage fear their effort will go too far to promote homosexuality.

The legislators’ work is spurred by last year’s state Supreme Court decision that concluded same-sex couples have the right to wed in Connecticut. The state’s 2005 civil-union law doesn’t give same-sex couples equal status of married heterosexual couples, the court said.

The General Assembly’s judiciary committee is considering a bill to remove gender references in current state laws and transform same-sex civil unions into legally recognized marriages as of October 2010. The bill was the subject of a committee hearing last Friday.

The measure also would strip language from a 1991 state antidiscrimination law that says Connecticut does not condone gay marriage and will not set quotas for hiring gay workers or encourage teaching in school about same-sex lifestyles. Some lawmakers consider the language outdated and unnecessary.

The proposal to delete that language has upset opponents, who think the court ruling could be used to affect social policy in other matters, such as school curricula.

The Family Institute of Connecticut, which calls the court ruling undemocratic, said on its Web site that changing the 1991 law “goes beyond mere legislative housekeeping.”

Peter Wolfgang, the organization’s executive director, told the committee the proposed changes could be interpreted by “some enterprising judge” or others as encouragement to teach about homosexual lifestyles in schools.

“We don’t want this misread as some sort of affirmation, some sort of mandate, that things that are opposed to in parental rights or traditional public beliefs will now be taught in the public schools,” Wolfgang said.

Waterbury resident Robert Muckle Sr. told lawmakers he worries about the effect on children if same-sex relationships are condoned or encouraged by educators.

“Things are bad enough in our schools with the teaching of comprehensive sex education without the added promotion of homosexuality and bisexuality,” he said.

State Rep. Michael Lawlor (D-East Haven), co-chairman of the judiciary committee, said the 1991 language prohibited actions that were never likely to occur anyway, such as setting quotas for hiring gay workers or pushing teachers to promote homosexuality.

It was added only to appease people who otherwise might have blocked the antidiscrimination bill, Lawlor said.

The language is a vestige of past discrimination that should be removed, said attorney Bennett Klein of Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, which represented the gay couples who won the Supreme Court decision.

“It’s meaningless language other than to express prejudice,” he said.

State Rep. Beth Bye (D-West Hartford), whose ceremony with her partner, Tracey Wilson, was Connecticut’s first same-sex marriage, said the updates to state law are much more than mere procedure.

“Marriage has meaning in our culture, and marriage has meaning in our state and to my family,” Bye, displaying her marriage license, told fellow lawmakers last Friday.

The judiciary committee did not immediately act on the proposed changes, which would require full General Assembly approval.

Only Connecticut and Massachusetts have legalized gay marriage, although the unions were legal in California for five months until a state referendum to ban gay marriage passed last fall.

Vermont, New Jersey, California, New Hampshire, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia have laws that either recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships that afford same-sex couples similar rights to marriage. Thirty states have gay-marriage bans in their constitutions.

Connecticut had 2,140 civil unions recorded as of last Friday, including 24 since the Oct. 10 Supreme Court decision.

Some church and conservative group leaders also want lawmakers to let Connecticut justices of the peace and anyone else with religious objections — such as wedding photographers or florists — refuse to participate in same-sex ceremonies.

“A situation has been created by the [court] decision where state policy seriously conflicts with the religious beliefs of a large number of people within the state,” said David Reynolds, a spokesperson for the Connecticut Catholic Conference.

The law would exempt clergy from performing same-sex marriages based on their religious beliefs. However, some legislators say justices of the peace are state officials and must perform the ceremonies, since they are legally prohibited from discriminating based on sexual orientation.