Gay marriage ban keeps moving toward Minn. ballot

MARTIGA LOHN | Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. — A proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage moved closer to getting on Minnesota’s 2012 ballot Monday, clearing a Republican-led House panel after its first Senate committee approval last week.

If both chambers approve the proposal, voters would be asked next year whether to amend the state constitution to define marriage solely as union of one man and one woman.

The amendment’s prospects have improved this year after last year’s elections gave Republicans full control of the Legislature for the first time in nearly four decades. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton opposes the amendment but doesn’t have the power to block it.

The 10-7 party-line vote by the House Civil Law Committee seemed almost preordained, with the panel’s Republicans voting yes and Democrats no. Minnesota law already prohibits gay marriage and prevents the state from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states and countries. But Rep. Steve Gottwalt, the bill’s sponsor, said he wants voters to be the ones to define marriage in Minnesota, not lawmakers or judges.

“It is not about hate, it is not about discrimination, it is about defining in Minnesota’s constitution the definition of marriage,” said Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud.

The amendment’s opponents predicted it would unleash a divisive political campaign that could tear apart families and communities.

“How many more gay people does God have to create before we ask ourselves whether God actually wants them around?” said Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park, drawing applause and shushing from panel chairman Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake.

Religious leaders of various backgrounds testified on both sides of the issue about the importance of families.

Pastor Sergio Choy of Bloomington’s Ministerio Maranatha Church spoke in favor of traditional marriage, adding that redefining the institution to include same-sex unions would be comparable to trying to make water out of hydrogen or oxygen alone.

“It is one mother and one father, one man and one woman who make up the foundation of the family,” Choy told lawmakers.

Gay-rights supporters warned legislators they risked overstepping their role and going against the tide of history as acceptance of gay relationships increases.

“This is not the religious law committee — this is the civil law committee,” said David Cummer, an elder at Grace Trinity Community Church in Minneapolis. “You guys have not been elected to the College of Cardinals. You are not members of the state church of Minnesota.”

The bill now heads to the Ways and Means Committee, its last stop before reaching the full House. The Senate version will go before a rules panel before reaching the floor.

—  John Wright

DOMA under assault but still potent

Controversy over federal marriage ban creates rollercoaster ride for same-sex couples living with real-world consequences

DAVID CRARY  |  Associated Press

NEW YORK — These are frustrating, tantalizing days for many of the same-sex couples who seized the chance to marry in recent years.

The law that prohibits federal recognition of their unions in under assault in the courts. The Obama administration has repudiated it and taken piecemeal steps to weaken its effects.

Yet for now, the Defense of Marriage Act remains very much in force — provoking anger, impatience and confusion among gay couples.

Because of DOMA, some binational couples still worry about deportation of the non-citizen spouse. Survivor benefits aren’t granted after one spouse dies. And couples filing joint tax returns in the states allowing same-sex marriage must still file separately this month with the IRS.

Said Brian Sheerin, who wed his partner six years ago in Massachusetts, “There are times I feel like a third-class citizen.”

When DOMA was passed overwhelmingly by Congress in 1996, and signed by President Bill Clinton, it was a pre-emptive strike. There were no legally married same-sex couples in the United States.

Since 2004, however, thousands of gays and lesbians have married as Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Iowa and the District of Columbia legalized same-sex unions. Many others have wed in foreign countries.

“What was once theoretical now has practical effects that people can see, that can’t be explained other than as discrimination,” said Jon Davidson, legal director of the gay-rights group Lambda Legal. “There are people who’ve been married six years who are increasingly getting impatient.”

The controversy around DOMA creates an emotional rollercoaster for same-sex couples.

Last July, for example, many of them rejoiced when a federal judge in Massachusetts ruled that the act was an unconstitutional infringement on equality for same-sex couples.

There was more elation in February, when President Barack Obama ordered his administration to stop defending the law in the still-pending Massachusetts case and several other lawsuits. Yet no one knows when these cases will finally be resolved.

Last month, there was a flurry of excitement among binational gay couples when a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman indicated that cases would be “held in abeyance” while broader legal issues were reviewed. Hopes soared that this would mean a halt in deportations of foreigners married to gay Americans, but within two days the federal agency said there would be no policy change.

“It’s gut-wrenching to go through the ups and downs,” said Doug Gentry, whose Venezuelan spouse, Alex Benshimol, faces a deportation hearing in July.

They briefly hoped the case would be put on hold — but now have been notified that an application for permanent residency for Benshimol has been denied.

“I’ve had the rug pulled out from under me so many times,” Gentry said. “You’re so used to getting your hopes up, only to get them dashed, that you almost don’t want to hope.”

The couple, who married last year in Connecticut after six years as partners, run a pet grooming business in Palm Springs, Calif.

“I don’t feel we’re different from any other family,” said Gentry, 53. “I don’t want to be forced to stay with my husband by going into exile, and leaving my home, my business and my country behind.”

DOMA also complicates life for U.S. citizen Edwin Blesch and his South African husband, Tim Smulian, who married in Cape Town in 2007.

Unlike some gay binational couples, in which the foreigner overstays a visa, Smulian has abided by the terms of tourist visas which limit him to six months annually in the U.S. That means that to be together, the two retirees must uproot themselves from their comfortable home on the northeast tip of Long Island and spend half the year abroad.

“It’s a great personal, financial and medical inconvenience,” said Blesch, 70, who has had past health problems, faces surgery this spring and relies on the care that Smulian provides him.

Both men believe DOMA is doomed to be struck down by the courts or repealed by Congress, but Blesch says the endgame could take years.

“It will be a long process,” he said. “I might be sitting in a rocking chair in a nursing home by then — or dead.”

For men and women whose same-sex spouse has died, DOMA can prevent the payment of Social Security or Veterans Administration survivor benefits that would be paid out to heterosexual widows and widowers.

In California, 77-year-old Ron Wallen worries that he might be unable to afford staying in the home near Palm Springs that he and his partner of 58 years, Tom Carrollo, had shared before Carrollo’s death in March.

The two men married in June 2008, during a brief window where same-sex marriage was legal in California. But now DOMA prevents Wallen from receiving Carrollo’s Social Security survivor benefits, and he’s living only on his own $900-a-month Social Security check — about half of what Carrollo had been receiving.

“It would seem to smack the constitution in the face,” Wallen said of DOMA. “It hurts like hell.”

In Cheshire, Conn., retired school teacher Andrew Sorbo is in similar straits. His husband, Colin Atterbury, who died in May 2009, had been a federal employee at a nearby veteran’s hospital, and DOMA prevents Sorbo from receiving his VA pension.

The two men had entered into a civil union in Vermont in 2004, then married in Connecticut in January 2009 as Atterbury became ill with pancreatic cancer.

“80 percent of our household income disappeared when he died,” said Sorbo, 64. “It’s a betrayal of the ideals I used to teach my students … I know there isn’t justice for all.”

Though Connecticut is a relatively liberal state — with same-sex marriage now causing little controversy — Sorbo said many people he encounters are unfamiliar with DOMA.

“They have no idea how gay people are not getting the same rights they are,” he said. “It passes them by.”

He expects DOMA to be overturned eventually in court. “But they’ll never make it retroactive,” he said. “So for me it’s too late.”

Brian Sheerin says DOMA cost him and his husband, Ken Weissenberg, tens of thousands of dollars in extra taxes when they sold a home four years ago in order to move to Bedford, N.Y. A heterosexual married couple would have been able pocket $500,000 of the sale price before capital gains taxes kicked in, he said, but they were listed as “single” and taxed on proceeds over $250,000.

“That still sticks in my craw,” said Sheerin, 51, who married Weissenberg in Massachusetts in 2005.

He recalled returning with their two adopted daughters from a family vacation in Mexico to encounter a U.S. immigration officer who wanted Sheerin and Weissenberg to go through the entry point separately. The officer eventually relented, but the elder daughter took note.

“She asked, `Why did they do that?”’ Sheerin recalled.

DOMA’s future is uncertain. Democrats in Congress have introduced legislation to repeal it, but that effort is considered a long-shot while Republicans control the House. The pending court challenges could lead eventually to a Supreme Court decision on DOMA’s constitutionality — but that process, if it happens at all, could take several years.

DOMA’s foes are heartened by several recent opinion polls showing, for the first time, that more than half of Americans are ready to accept legal same-sex marriage. They hope this shift will reinforce the legal arguments against DOMA — notably that it creates an unwarranted exception to the historical federal policy of recognizing marriages of couples legally wed in the states.

“This exception denies thousands of legally married couples and their families the critical safety net that only marriage brings,” says Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry. “Perhaps worst of all, this is discrimination by the government itself, hurting families without helping anyone.”

One question is how DOMA will be defended in the pending court cases.

With the Obama administration now refusing to perform that task, the GOP leadership in the House says it will intervene to defend DOMA in court, but details remain sketchy. The Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay-rights group, has written to 200 of the country’s top law firms urging them not to take up the case on behalf of the House.

Joe Kapp, a Washington-based financial planner, said the uncertain status of DOMA has added to the challenges of advising his large gay clientele.

“The changes taking place are exciting, but there’s a lot of flux, and conflicting ways in which the administration is looking at relationships,” he said. “For now, couples probably should continue to assume that they will be recognized as strangers in the eyes of the law.”

Some activists are urging a more confrontational approach. A “Refuse to Lie” petition has been circulating on the Internet — promoted by various gay-rights groups — encouraging married gay couples to file joint federal tax returns in defiance of DOMA.

“The federal government’s refusal to recognize our marriages is blatant discrimination and we will not play along by lying on our tax returns and pretending we are single,” the petition says. “The government has chosen to discriminate and we choose to expose their bigotry by refusing to lie.”

At the bottom of the declaration is a disclaimer suggesting those who join the campaign consult an attorney for legal advice.

At least a half-dozen legal challenges of DOMA are pending, and the advocacy group Immigration Equality is laying the groundwork for an additional lawsuit focused on the plight of binational couples.

Meanwhile, several Democrats in Congress are urging federal immigration authorities to halt deportation cases affecting such couples.

“I recently applauded the president’s decision to order his Justice Department to stop defending DOMA in federal court,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. “In that same spirit, he should now order his Homeland Security Department to halt all deportations until we find the courage to kill this unconstitutional law.”

The administration already has taken some steps to ease DOMA’s impact, such as requiring executive branch agencies to extend benefits to same-sex domestic partners of federal employees.

On April 1, the Department of Health and Human Services advised states that they can henceforth treat gay couples — whether married or in domestic partnerships — similarly to straight couples with respect to benefit programs. For example, Medicaid has exemptions to avoid forcing a healthy spouse to give up the family home and retirement savings in order to qualify a spouse for long-term care; that protection will now be permissible for sex-same as well as heterosexual couples.

The incremental moves have been welcomed by activists, but don’t prevent impatience.

Said Jon Davidson, “Now that even the administration admits DOMA is unconstitutional, that has people wondering why it’s still there.”

—  John Wright

DOMA author Bob Barr to keynote Log Cabin Republicans convention in Dallas next month

Former Rep. Bob Barr, R-Georgia

Former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr, who authored the Defense of Marriage Act but has since come out in favor of its repeal, will be keynote speaker at Log Cabin Republicans’ National Convention in Dallas next month, according to a press release from the group.

The convention is set for April 28 through May 1 at the Hilton Anatole Hotel, and Barr will speak at the National Dinner on April 30.

“Congressman Barr is living proof that Republicans are becoming more inclusive, and doing so for conservative reasons,” said R. Clarke Cooper, Log Cabin Republicans Executive Director, in a press release. “As a freshman member of Congress in 1996, Barr wrote DOMA.  He has since come to the conclusion that ‘DOMA’s language reflects one-way federalism’ and that the law ‘has become a de facto club used to limit, if not thwart, the ability of a state to choose to recognize same-sex unions,’ contrary to the traditional Republican respect for states’ rights, and that DOMA should be repealed.

“Barr’s principled stand shows what a real evolution on marriage looks like today, and Log Cabin Republicans look forward to hearing from him on this timely issue in Dallas,” Cooper said. “As evidenced by the last election, in which gay and lesbian support for Republicans nearly doubled and independent voters helped sweep a GOP majority into office, inclusion can and does win. Log Cabin will continue to work to expand the base of the Republican Party, all the while gaining new allies in the fight for freedom.”

According to the press release, other special guests at the 2011 National Convention will include FOX News contributor Margaret Hoover and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman.

—  John Wright

Court won’t force Calif. officials to defend Prop 8

Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A California court has refused to order Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown to appeal a ruling that overturned the state’s gay marriage ban.

The 3rd District Court of Appeal on Wednesday, Sept. 1 denied a conservative legal group’s request to force the officials to defend voter-approved Proposition 8.

Presiding Justice Arthur Scotland did not explain why the appeals court turned down the request filed two days earlier by the Pacific Justice Institute.

The institute now plans to take the matter to the California Supreme Court, Chief Counsel Kevin Snider said Thursday.

“We are disappointed that the appellate court showed indecisiveness in trying to prevent a constitutional crisis,” Snider said. “They didn’t want to deal with it.”

The institute maintains the attorney general and governor have the duty to uphold all laws, including those passed by voters.

Brown has said he cannot defend Proposition 8 because he thinks it is unconstitutional; Schwarzenegger has chosen to remain neutral.

Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker struck down Proposition 8 last month as a violation of gay Californians’ civil rights.

The measure approved by 52 percent of California voters in November 2008 amended the state Constitution to outlaw same-sex unions five months after the state Supreme Court legalized them.

The state has until Sept. 11 to challenge Walker’s ruling. Both Brown and Schwarzenegger have said they don’t plan an appeal.

The coalition of conservative and religious groups that sponsored the ban has appealed the ruling by Walker. But doubts have been raised about whether its members have authority to do so because as ordinary citizens they are not responsible for enforcing marriage laws.

Twenty-seven members of the California Assembly sent Schwarzenegger a letter this week urging the governor to bring an appeal if Brown will not.

—  John Wright

Castro sorry for persecution of gays in Cuba

Fidel Castro

The latest country to talk about legalizing same-sex marriage will not become the new gay and lesbian travel destination anytime soon.

What is the latest country to talk about legalizing same-sex unions? That bastion of civil rights — Cuba.

Fidel Castro has been out of the spotlight for several years but recently made some public appearances. Asked about gays and lesbians, he apologized for past mistreatment.

In an interview on Radio Cadena Agramonte, Castro took responsibility for persecution of gays and lesbians after the 1959 revolution.

“Five decades ago, because of homophobia, homosexuals were marginalized in Cuba and many were sent to agricultural or military labor camps, accused of being “counterrevolutionaries,” he said. “We had so many terrible problems, problems of life or death, you know, you do not pay enough attention.”

He said personally he had no prejudice and that many of his oldest friends were gay and lesbian.

But he said, “No, if someone is responsible (for the discrimination) it is me.”

Homosexuality was decriminalized in Cuba in the 1990s, and sex-reassignment surgery for transgenders began being performed free in 2008.

The slogan for the last World Day Against Homophobia in Cuba was “La homosexualidad no es un peligro, la homofobia sí” or “Homosexuality is not a threat, homophobia is.”

—  David Taffet

Church finds minister guilty for marrying gays

LISA LEFF  |  Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — A retired Presbyterian minister was found guilty of misconduct Friday, Aug. 27 by a church court for officiating the weddings of 16 gay couples when same-sex marriage was legal in California.

A regional commission of the Presbyterian Church (USA) ruled 4-2 that the Rev. Jane Spahr of San Francisco “persisted in a pattern or practice of disobedience” by performing the weddings in 2008 before Proposition 8 banned the unions in the state.

The church’s highest court has held that Presbyterian ministers may bless same-sex unions as long as they do “not state, imply, or represent that a same-sex ceremony is a marriage.”

By willfully challenging that holding, Spahr broke her ordination vows, the commission said in its majority opinion.

At the same time, however, the tribunal devoted most of its 21/2-page ruling to praising the 68-year-old pastor, a lesbian who founded a church group in the early 1990s for gay Presbyterians.

Spahr was acknowledged “for her prophetic ministry” and “faithful compassion. The commissioners called on the broader church to use her example “to re-examine our own fear and ignorance.”

The six-member commission representing 54 Northern California churches censured Spahr with a rebuke as punishment. Spahr said she was disappointed by the verdict and would appeal to a midlevel church court.

It was the second time the regional Presbytery of the Redwoods convened a court to consider charges against Spahr for sanctioning same-sex relationships.

In 2006, a church court composed of different members ruled that she had acted within her rights as an ordained minister when she married two lesbian couples in 2004 and 2005.

—  John Wright

Trial set for Calif. minister who performed gay weddings

LISA LEFF  |  Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — A retired Presbyterian minister and active critic of her faith’s position on same-sex marriage will be tried by a church court for performing the weddings of gay couples during a brief period when same-sex marriage was legal in California.

The Rev. Jane Spahr, 67, has been charged with “publicly, intentionally and repeatedly” violating Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) doctrine by presiding at the weddings of 16 couples between June 2008 and November 2008, before California voters outlawed same-sex marriages.

“To turn my back on the love and lifelong commitments of these wonderful couples would have gone against my faith, the ministry where I was called, and most of all, against God’s amazing hospitality and welcome where love and justice meet together,” Spahr said in a written statement.

She has pleaded not guilty, explaining there are other parts of church doctrine that are just as important such as being welcoming and valuing diversity.

The church constitution defines marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman, but its Supreme Judicial Council has ruled that ministers can bless same-sex unions as long as they are not called marriages and the ceremonies don’t mimic traditional weddings.

The regional Presbytery of the Redwoods, which oversees 52 churches from an area north of San Francisco to the Oregon border, was required to bring the charges against Spahr earlier this year after a member filed a formal accusation against her.

Eleven of the couples Spahr married were expected to testify as witnesses at the trial scheduled to start Tuesday, Aug. 24 at a church in Napa.

“The question of this trial is, are state law and church law incompatible,” said the Rev. Robert Conover, the prebytery’s standing clerk. “Did Rev. Spahr violate the church constitution when she performed same-gender marriages that were legal?”

It’s the second time Spahr, a lesbian who founded a ministry for gay Presbyterians, has faced possible sanctions from her church. In 2006, she became the first pastor of her faith to be tried for officiating the weddings of gay couples from states that did not permit same-sex civil marriages.

The regional church tribunal acquitted her, but an intermediate church court rebuked her for misconduct the next year. The church’s highest court finally cleared Spahr of any wrongdoing, ruling she did not violate denominational law because the ceremonies she performed were not for government-recognized marriages.

Spahr’s lawyers plan to argue this time around that she would have been breaking church law and shirking her pastoral responsibilities if she had refused to marry gay couples who had the legal right to wed and wanted Presbyterian ceremonies.

“The implication of these charges is that Rev. Spahr should have told these couples no — that she should have advised these couples to go elsewhere,” the lawyers wrote in their legal brief. “The testimony in this case will show that Rev. Spahr’s was the more faithful response.”

If found guilty, Spahr could receive sanctions ranging from a rebuke, the most mild discipline, to a suspension. As with her previous case, the verdict following the upcoming trial would likely be appealed to a higher church court and take a few years to resolve, Conover said.

“Presbyterians, like most mainline Protestants, are accustomed to our church law and state law complementing each other,” he said. “We are in a situation now where what’s at argument is whether that is still the case.”

—  John Wright