Gay Rights Debate Comes to City Hall

While state capitals are the historic battleground on the issue, advocates on both sides of the argument are now making their voices heard at the local level.
by | July 10, 2012
 

North Carolina residents voted earlier this year for a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage. It was only the latest instance of a major battle playing out in a state capital over the rights of gay citizens.

This year alone, the governors of Washington and Maryland signed bills legalizing same-sex marriage (voters have since forced referendums on both). New Jersey legislators voted approve same sex-marriage too, but Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it. And an appeals court in California affirmed a lower court's decision to overturn a California referendum banning gay marriage.

But while state capitals are typically viewed as the epicenter of the debate over gay rights, a growing number of localities are finding themselves grappling with the issue too and realizing that when it comes to civil rights for gay residents, there’s more to be discussed than just marriage.

Earlier this year, elected officials in Cincinnati approved domestic partner benefits for workers this year, ensuring that the partners of gay employees are eligible for their health care. This year alone, elected officials in Charlotte, Indianapolis, St. Louis have all started mulling that idea too. The issue was front-and-center during the race for mayor Miami-Dade County last year, when candidates debated domestic benefits. Carlos Gimenez, who pledged to veto any attempt to repeal them, won the election.

At the same time advocates watched Colorado debate gay marriage this year, a contentious debate played out in the city of Lincoln, Neb. over the rights of gay residents. In May, the city council voted to broaden the city’s civil rights laws to protect gay and transgender people from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations. “We have a very positive, active gay community in Lincoln,” says Mayor Chris Beutler. “We want them to feel comfortable here because it’s the right thing to do and it seems fair to us.”

But shortly after Lincoln lawmakers passed the ordinance, a pair of Christian organization successfully gathered enough signatures from residents to force a repeal of the ordinance. Among their criticisms of the policy: the possibility that it could force some employees to undergo mandatory sensitivity training, and the fear that it would allow biological males to access women’s restrooms.

"(When) the government starts setting up what is right or wrong in regards to sexual morality, some of that comes in conflict with the church," says Al Riskowski, executive director of the Nebraska Family Council, one of the leading opponents of the ordinance.  He says he sees the issue as one of freedom of speech. "At what point can you say certain behaviors are sinful? And at what point do you (decide) society can't say that because it's hateful to say certain things are sinful?"

Meanwhile, the debate got into the nitty-gritty of lawmaking. The city attorney said opponents made technical mistakes with their petition. The state’s attorney general said the city couldn’t use an ordinance to pass civil rights. So Beutler has come up with a solution he says will settle the issue once and for all. The city has repealed the ordinance, and Beutler says it will likely be put to voters in November – this time as a charter amendment – so that whatever residents decide won’t get tossed out on a technicality.

Interestingly, while the country has focused its attention on statehouses debating marriage rights for gay citizens, Beutler says the issue in Lincoln is a decidedly local one. “I can’t say there was no discussion of the national scene – it’s hard to discuss any political issue in this country without talking about the three levels of government – but what’s happening at the national level is not in any way a driving force of this,” Beutler says.

In Toledo, city council this year voted along party lines in favor of domestic partner benefits. “We’re now going to treat people equally,” said Joe McNamara, president of the city council. “I view it as the last sort of civil rights issue.” Opponents in Toledo put their criticism in financial terms, saying the city couldn’t afford to provide more benefits to its workers.That’s a familiar argument in cities considering the move.

In San Antonio, for example, officials debating the budget last year took three hours of public comments on the issue of domestic partner benefits. That line item represented just .01 percent of the city’s $2.2 billion budget, the San Antonio Express- News reported, suggesting the issue tapped into greater concerns than just money.

Meanwhile, all across Florida, localities this year are approving domestic partner registries, which would allow unmarried couples, regardless of gender, to make hospital or jail visits -- rights historically reserved for spouses. Orange County, Sarasota, Clearwater and St. Petersburg all approved creation of domestic registry in the last few months.

Craig Lowe, the mayor of Gainesville, Fla. who is openly gay, says local jurisdictions are taking the lead on an issue that the conservative state government has sidestepped. “I would hope that the state would be more supportive than they are, but it just shows how important it is for local governments to take a stand on these issues,” Lowe says.

And in El Paso, Mayor John Cook has been fighting for his job after making the controversial decision to restore domestic partner benefits to city workers after residents voted in favor of a 2010 ballot initiative to revoke them.

So far, Cook has fended off two recall attempts in the wake of that decision. He’s resorted to asking votes who support his position to contribute money towards his legal defense fund -- he's racked up $384,00 in legal expenses --as he fights his opponents in court.  He argues that as corporations, it was illegal for religious institutions to circulate recall petitions.

Cook, who says he marched on Washington with the civil rights movement in the 1960s, calls his opponents "bigots" and says he is proud to fight of domestic partner benefits, despite the political and personal financial costs. "You should never worry about the consequences of doing whats right," Cook says.

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, a Republican who supports gay marriage, says cities send an important message when offering domestic partner benefits. “It’s something that shows employees … we stand for equality,” says Sanders. “It’s more symbolic than anything else since there’s not a huge budget impact.”

Sanders himself generated headlines in 2007 when he made an emotional announcement of his support for gay marriage after originally opposing it.

The change of heart, he said, was largely because of his daughter who is gay as well as gay members of his staff. Earlier this year he became co-chair of Mayors for the Freedom to Marry, a bipartisan group of nearly 250 mayors who have endorsed same-sex marriage. Although that’s not an issue within the purview of city government, Sanders says it’s important for mayors of both parties to take on a leadership role on the issue, since it could inspire politicians at other levels of governments to openly support the cause too.

McNamara, of Toledo, says he doesn’t think the city would have been able to pass domestic partner benefits just a few years ago. “I really think the country is changing its attitude.”

Leigh Ann Renzulli contributed to this report.

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