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January 16, 2007

Marriage equality coming to Washington?

It's a day too late to share the Martin Luther King connection, but still worthy of discussion.  Today, Jamie Pederson and Ed Murray introduced two landmark pieces of legislation that will move the discussion of marriage equality forward for years to come in Washington state.

[Before I go further, please register now to attend Equality Day in Olympia on February 26, to join clergy, people of faith and people like me to lobby legislators on behalf of this legislation and against discrimination!  And please consider sharing your testimony on behalf of these bills...opposition will be hot, so your participation is so important!]

HB 1350 (adobe required - non adobe link here) is least likely to pass, and would amend existing law primarily by removing all references to "a male and a female" or "wife or husband" and replacing them with "two persons" or "spouse".  In other words, it would expand marriage equality to all Washington citizens. 

Something I didn't know about same-sex couples, from the bill itself:

According to the 2000 census, Washington state is home to at least sixteen thousand same sex couples, ranking ninth among the fifty states in the number of same sex couples. Same sex couples live in all thirty-nine counties in Washington, and nearly one in four of these couples is raising children.

More from the same bill, and of utmost importance when discussing this bill in a religious setting:

No official of any religious denomination or nonprofit institution authorized to solemnize marriages shall be required to solemnize any marriage in violation of his or her right to free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution or by the Washington state Constitution.

HB 1351 (non adobe link here) and its sister bill SB 5336 takes quite a different tack:  It addresses specific aspects of the 423+ rights and responsibilities that married couples enjoy - specifically those pertaining to health care, disposition of remains upon death and inheritance of an estate without a written will.  This will be significantly more difficult for opponents to dispatch it, in part because of the language which expands beyond same sex couples to include heterosexual couples past age 62.

This is similar in many ways to legislation on the books in California, which specifically addressed the rights and responsibilities of same sex couples and unmarried couples over age 62.  It's important to note that the bill under consideration here may have the same future as California's legislation, which has an amendment bill in consideration, SB 11, which would eliminate the age requirement for heterosexual couples and would become gender- and age-neutral, as long as the couple met all other requirements for domestic partnership (essentially, the same as those needed to become married minus gender language and plus the requirement of cohabitation).

There are roughly 5.5 million unmarried-partner households in the country (as of 2000; this is undoubtedly higher) - roughly 8.2%, and one of the lower rates of cohabitation among industrialized countries.  There is little available data on the percentage of these households which involve partners over the age of 62, and most data is based on opinion and conjecture rather than data.  However, it is difficult to argue against the logic of providing such couples the rights of hospital visitation, estate executorship, etc., without enduring the financial hardship many retired folks would suffer upon giving up pensions and Social Security. 

I'll get back to the same-sex issues here and address the incrementalism, but it's important to consider the implications of this bill, and the realities which it addresses.  As of 2002, nearly 6 million seniors were near or below the poverty level, and the Census Bureau indicates there are somewhere north of 200,000 (data is mixed in their report - age groups are lumped by 55-64 {347,000} and 65+ {148,000}) households with cohabiting seniors.  The Olympian reported in 2000 that:

...households made up of opposite-sex senior couples rose 46 percent between 1996 and 2000, a bigger jump than that of their middle-aged counterparts. Other reports fold in same-sex couples, showing the number of senior cohabitants rising 73 percent between 1990 and 1999, from 127,000 to 220,000.

In any case, this is a healthy population of folks (one wonders how many in Washington) that have the same right as anyone else to not live in poverty, to not give up the Social Security they've earned over a long life, and to live with someone they love without worrying what will happen to them should they get sick or pass away.  Nor should they have to spend the little money they have drafting legal documents to protect themselves from the state should the worst happen.  This is a basic, common-sense thing that provides some basic fairness to a group we can all agree is in many ways very disadvantaged in our society.  I look forward to Republican arguments that our seniors should have to either give up their rights or their Social Security...

And that brings me back to the issue of same-sex rights and incrementalism.  I'm not going to touch on the marriage equality legislation because A) it's a no-brainer, in my book, and progressive don't need me preaching about it, and B) it's destined for a 30-year quest through the legislature, mirroring the path of our recent civil rights legislation.  But I will talk about HB 1351.

Some naysayers have, in echoing the sentiments of MLK's Letter from a Birmingham Jail, decried the approach of HB 1351 as a half-measure, as asking same-sex couples to 'wait just a little while longer'.  It's a valid point to some degree, and certainly a valid argument in the overall social context - indeed, why should anyone have to wait for social justice?  But to decry this bill in particular when seen as a companion with HB 1350 misses the overarching point and strategy, and that is that Ed Murray, Jamie Pederson and their 55 (so far!) co-sponsors are simultaneously forcing marriage equality opponents to discuss, openly and one by one, the rights and responsibilities they would like to keep from same sex couples while simultaneously holding up HB 1350 as the solution to the conversation:  Just pass this, and you don't have to go through the embarrassment of defending these one by one for the next decade.  (During which time, cohabiting seniors and same-sex couples will see their rights gradually expanded, rather than the reverse) 

Is it fast?  Of course not.  Is it as fast a strategy as social justice would seem to require?  Definitely not.  But it's light-years better than simply offering a marriage equality bill by itself and trying to argue the lump of 423 rights at once, which would result in one of two outcomes: 

1)  Most likely, a sound defeat.  As much as Josh Feit at the Stranger likes to complain that Democrats in Olympia aren't reaching far enough given their large majorities, the fact remains that "Democrat" and "progressive" are still two different words, and as long as people like Tim Sheldon win primaries, you'll have trouble pushing something like this through.  Not all Democrats embrace marriage equality; it's well known that any gathering of Democrats is a gathering of wildly varying agendas and opinions, and this is a particularly difficult issue to get agreement on, unfortunately. 

2)  A pyrrhic victory.  There is the chance our majority is large enough to actually pass, and Governor Gregoire's willingness to sign the bill is unknown at the moment.  If HB 1350 passes this session (a huge victory, to be sure!), does anyone think our initiative process, grown so tiresome to most Washingtonians by now, wouldn't instantly regain its popularity with the unfortunate majority who still oppose marriage equality?  Mind you, this isn't the same as a majority who kind of don't like 9 cent gas taxes...there is real passion behind the opposition to marriage equality, even in blue Washington.  Fighting off such an initiative with the background of gays actually getting married would be more difficult than many progressives want to believe.  An initiative to constitutionally ban marriage equality could in a heartbeat undo everything LGBT advocates have worked for over the years.

This is admittedly a pessimistic view of things, but we must take the reality of our situation into account.  We've got a chance to make serious headway on marriage equality - maybe even pass the bill (and I hope I can eat my words on the pyrrhic victory) - and at a minimum, provide same sex couples and cohabiting seniors with the right to visit their loved ones in the hospital and make medical decisions, dispose of their loved ones' remains, and maintain their estate if they don't have a written will...basic rights I take for granted as a straight married man. 

The long and short here is that Jamie Pederson and Ed Murray have decided to play two bets at once:  one bet with house money, that they're pretty sure they can win, and one that they could win that may or may not have permanent payoff.  If nothing else, they don't walk away with nothing...and maybe they walk away with the whole ball of wax.  Because despite my pessimism, there is still always the possibility, always, that they could pull this off - pass marriage equality and protect it when the inevitable initiative is voted on. 

In the short run though, with regard to HB 1351, is no progress at all preferable to at least some basic progress?  Can we not agree that even a small amount of dignity and freedom is worth working for?  If this bill was entered in a vacuum, with no other move to seek full marriage equality, I would share the outrage of those who call it a half-measure.  As it is, though, progressives need to play smart and see this for the shrewd (to use a lame sports metaphor) ball-control offense this really is.

I believe we can work for HB 1351 with all the fervor and passion the cause of equal rights deserves without for a moment sacrificing our fight for full marriage equality.  I believe we must do so.  I think this bill deserves no less than an all-out press on our part, and while we're at it let's work for full marriage equality sooner rather than later.

Posted by switzerblog on January 16, 2007 at 06:02 PM in Policy | Permalink


Nice research and post. Here are some great ads that a blog in New Jersey has up championing marriage equality.


This Murray/Pederson strategy of going after both all out marriage equality on the one hand but then going after incrementally increasing civil rights at the same time. It has worked really well there. The focus on marriage equality moves the statewide dialog along and makes it much easier to get better civil rights - equal visitation, legal and medical rights. Plus, moves along the acceptance of full marriage equality.

Posted by: Lynn | Jan 16, 2007 7:07:19 PM

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