MA Lawmakers Turn to the Courts for Civil Union Clarification

December 11, 2003 ( - The Massachusetts state Senate is turning to the state Supreme Judicial Court to clarify whether a sweeping civil union bill is in line with the court's recent gay marriage ruling.

Backed by Senate President Robert Travaglini, the Joint Committee on the Judiciary is scheduled to produce a sweeping civil union bill that the Senate leadership is convinced provides all the protections, obligations, and benefits of civil marriage that the court says the law must grant gay couples, the Boston Globe reported.

The Senate’s civil union bill would provide:

  • same-sex couples with the right to health insurance of employees’ partners
  • worker compensation benefits for partners
  • joint state income tax filing
  • inheritance rights
  • rights to hospital visitations.

The bill also would prohibit discrimination against same-sex couples joined in a civil union. Many of the same laws that govern marriage would apply to civil unions, such as barring marriage between relatives or minors, providing similar procedures for applying for licenses, and applying the same probate and divorce laws.

But the bill never actually labels the unions as “marriage” – a key sticking point with gay marriage advocates who say civil unions fall short of offering the full legal benefits enjoyed by heterosexual couples.

Following the November Ruling

The Senate’s moves would be the first official action taken by state officials deal with the court’s groundbreaking November 18 decision (See  Mass. Supreme Court: Gay Couples Entitled to Legal Marriage Rights ). Travaglini said he feels it is imperative to get the court’s clarification in order to avoid an ugly and emotional showdown over the hot-button issue of legalizing gay marriage.

House lawmakers are planning a similar approach as early as next week. Lawmakers are hoping to get a decision from the court before February 11, when the state House and Senate, meeting together as a 200-member constitutional convention, will take up an agenda that includes a constitutional amendment that limits marriage to heterosexuals and bans civil unions. Travaglini said that if the court finds the Senate bill meets its criteria, he is confident that the Senate would approve the civil unions bill. Passage in the more conservative House is less certain, however.

However, a civil unions law would not affect how Massachusetts citizens in civil unions are regarded when they visit other states. Nor would a civil union law guarantee the hundreds of provisions granted to married couples under federal law, such as inheritance rights for 401(k) and pension programs.

In last month’s ruling, the state’s high court said that “barring an individual from the protections, benefits and obligations of civil marriage solely because that person would marry a person of the same sex violates the Massachusetts Constitution.” It stayed the order 180 days “to permit the Legislature to take such action as it may deem appropriate in light of this opinion.”