|A bill in Colorado designed to
give various legal protections to "reciprocal beneficiaries"
gained media attention recently when conservative leaders split
on whether to support it.
James Dobson of Focus on the
Family gave his approval to SB 166 and had his organization
lobby actively for its passage. Paul Cameron of the Family
Research Institute came unglued and lashed out with a furor.
Cameron said that Dobson had "come off the tracks" of the
What's all the fuss about?
The reciprocal beneficiary bill
would give a few legal benefits to two unmarried adults who are
not eligible to marry each other, such as blood relatives or
same-sex couples. Among the protections are rights to
hospital visitation, medical decision making, disposition of
remains, inheritance without a will, and worker's compensation
Cameron is a staunch foe of "gay
rights" and does not want the Legislature to extend any legal
recognition of any kind whatsoever to same-sex couples. He
would prefer that gay life partners be considered strangers to
each other in the eyes of the law.
Dobson is also against "gay
rights" and is a firm opponent of gay marriage or anything
similar to it, such as domestic partnerships or civil unions.
But Dobson is also a sharp political strategist who knows when
to give an inch in order to achieve a larger victory
for his conservative cause.
Last month, Democrats in the
Colorado Legislature introduced HB 1344, a domestic partnership
bill which, if approved by voters, would grant a wide range of
benefits and protections to same-sex couples.
Fearful that a domestic
partnership law might squeak through the Legislature and get a
nod from the voters, Republican leaders developed the
"reciprocal beneficiary" counter-proposal. The strategy:
throw a few scraps from the table and same-sex couples won't
look so undernourished to voters. And in order to avoid
looking "pro-gay" in any way, the bill included any two people
who were precluded from marriage, such as blood relatives.
Dobson and his Focus on the
Family group apparently felt that moderate legislators could be
persuaded to vote against the domestic partner bill if they had
some political cover. They would not look mean spirited if
they could vote for an alternative which provides some basic
legal protections in a limited number of situations.
This is not the first time that a
"reciprocal beneficiary" measure has been introduced in an
attempt to derail a more comprehensive bill giving rights to
unmarried couples. The tactic was first developed in
Hawaii and later used in Vermont.
In Hawaii, the state Senate had
passed a comprehensive domestic partnership law, in response to
a ruling by the Hawaii Supreme Court that denying marriage
rights to same-sex couples might be unconstitutional.
Conservatives in the state House of Representatives refused to
back the partnership law, offering up instead a "reciprocal
beneficiary" bill to give a number of rights and benefits to any
two adults who could not legally marry. Eventually, the
bill passed when moderates in the Senate shifted support to the
Vermont also has a "reciprocal
beneficiary" law on its books. It passed when the
Legislature there was considering what to do in response to a
ruling by the state Supreme Court which virtually ordered
lawmakers to legalize same-sex marriage or at least pass a
comprehensive domestic partnership law. Under that ruling,
failure to adopt a domestic partnership law would result in a
court-ordered same-sex marriage statute.
Because they had a judicial gun
to their heads, moderate legislators felt compelled to vote in
favor of the comprehensive domestic partnership law, which they
renamed "civil union." The
"reciprocal beneficiary" bill also passed as a polite gesture to
Left out of the debate in Hawaii
and Vermont, and now Colorado, is the legal status of unmarried
heterosexual couples. They have been consistently excluded
from the definition of "reciprocal beneficiaries" in these
states since they are eligible to marry. They are also
excluded from "domestic partnerships" or "civil
unions" because they are not gay.
Like it or not, to the scores of
opposite-sex couples who are delaying marriage or who would
prefer being considered domestic partners rather than spouses,
the political message seems apparent: let them eat wedding cake.
God forbid that unmarried
heterosexual couples should have a legal option other than
Unmarried America 2006
Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an
attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family
diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.
Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried
firstname.lastname@example.org. Unmarried America is a nonprofit
information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and