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No wedding bells: why banning same-sex marriage spells disaster.

Ray Vahey and Richard Taylor met in Ohio in 1956. Taylor, a World War II veteran, was managing a toy warehouse in Cleveland. Vahey, just out of high school, was in town for the Labor Day weekend. They fell in love the evening they met.

"It was the height of the busy season and he had to work," Vahey recalls. "He taught me how to use a ticket pricer. It was an unusual honeymoon, but it was romantic to me."

The couple has been together ever since, moving around the country as Vahey climbed the corporate ladder. Their sprawling Victorian-style apartment in Milwaukee is stuffed with art and antiques, a shared passion that started when they lived in San Francisco. They've seen each other through major life events, including serious illnesses for them both.

But despite their fifty-year commitment, they still don't have access to the routine benefits accorded married couples.

"If one of us dies, the survivor has no right to the other's Social Security payments," Vahey says. "When I retired from my last firm, I could not take an option to cover Richard under my pension, as others could to cover their spouses." And Vahey has no claim to Taylor's veteran's benefits.

They estimate they've spent $10,000 in legal fees to care for each other in sickness and in health, and to make provisions in case of death. But they, and thousands of other gay and lesbian couples across the country, are worried that far-reaching constitutional bans on gay marriage and civil unions on the November ballot will nullify their stop-gap safeguards.

Since 1998, nineteen states have passed constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, though Nebraska's and Georgia's were struck down and are under appeal. Alabama became the most recent state to pass a ban, with more than 80 percent of voters approving a constitutional amendment in early June.

This fall, voters in Wisconsin and at least five other states will weigh in on whether to ban same-sex marriage within their borders. The amendments in Wisconsin, Virginia, South Dakota, South Carolina, and Idaho would either explicitly or implicitly ban civil unions and threaten benefits for domestic partners. A measure in Tennessee is narrower.

There are also efforts under way in Illinois, Colorado, and Arizona to get same-sex marriage bans on the November ballot, though the Illinois measure would only be advisory to its state legislature. (Colorado already has a fall ballot measure that would create a statewide registry for same-sex couples and give them many of the rights and benefits available to married couples, including health insurance, pension coverage, and hospital visitation rights.)

The most sweeping amendments, if passed, would ban civil unions and allow social conservatives to challenge the ability of governmental entities and private companies to offer domestic partnership benefits. Also in jeopardy, say legal experts, are parenting and real estate agreements, wills, powers of attorney, and other valuable legal documents that gay and lesbian couples are increasingly using to achieve some of the protections automatically provided by marriage.

"We're talking about language that very clearly bans civil unions and very broadly will ban anything and everything that would be a way for couples to protect each other," says Leslie Shear, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-chair of the school's Family Law Project.

For Vahey and Taylor, that would be a nightmare.

And it would be a nightmare for Aurora Greane, too. Asked hat grade she's in, Aurora doesn't have a ready answer.

"I'm in a variety of grades," chirps the seven-and-a-half-year-old, who reads at the third and fourth grade level and spells at the second grade level.

"That's part of the beauty of homeschooling," explains her mother, Debra. "She can learn at whatever level she's at."

Aurora is working on math problems alongside her mom as sun streams through the large windows of the family's new home in Madison, Wisconsin. The family moved to larger quarters to make room for Debra's elderly mom, who will soon be moving in.

Aurora's sister, Rikaela, fourteen, is at the kitchen breakfast bar conjugating verbs for a Spanish class she takes with other homeschoolers. Shana Greane, Debra's partner and the girls' other morn, is at her job as an occupational therapist for the Madison school system.

It is Shana's job--more specifically, the domestic partnership benefit package offered through the school system--that makes this way of life possible for the Greane family. Otherwise, Debra would have to find a job of her own with health benefits and wouldn't have the time, or energy, to homeschool their kids.

"This is just what our family does," says Debra, looking around the room at her children. "Who would have the right to take this away from us?"

In 2004, Republicans rushed thirteen amendments onto state ballots to coincide with the Presidential election. They all passed. In Ohio and Michigan, conservatives quickly challenged domestic partnership benefits. In Utah and Ohio, judges have invoked the amendments to deny domestic violence protections for unmarried heterosexual couples.

"In '04, we were the Chicken Littles," says Carrie Evans, state legislative director of the Human Rights Campaign. "Our legal intuition told us the language in these bans was really bad, but we had no evidence. Now we've had actual real-life consequences."

In Michigan, Citizens for Protection of Marriage repeatedly stated in its literature and in press interviews that a ban on same-sex marriage would not affect domestic partnership benefits.

"This has nothing to do with taking benefits away," Marlene Elwell, campaign director, told USA Today on October 15, 2004. "This is about marriage between a man and a woman."

The campaign's communications director was equally adamant. The proposal would have no effect on gay couples, Kristina Hemphill told the Holland Sentinel. "This amendment has nothing to do with benefits," she said.

Yet shortly after Michigan's ban passed, Governor Jennifer Granholm pulled domestic partnership benefits from contracts being negotiated for state workers. And Attorney General Mike Cox issued an opinion stating that such benefits for municipal employees could not be renewed in future contracts.

"It's a bait and switch," says Jay Kaplan, an attorney with the ACLU of Michigan, which filed a lawsuit seeking clarification that Michigan's ban does not prohibit domestic partnership benefits offered by public employers. "They put in ambiguous language because they are trying to roll back other things."

Tom and Dennis Patrick are plaintiffs in the Michigan lawsuit. They rely on domestic partnership benefits offered through Dennis's job at Eastern Michigan University to help raise their children, all of whom joined their family as foster children. (The Patricks have adopted three children and are in the process of adopting a fourth.)

Together for nine years, Tom and Dennis have owned three houses together and now live in an old farmhouse in Ypsilanti. Because Tom, a high school math teacher, is covered under Dennis's health insurance, he can work part time as a substitute teacher and be at home more often to help with the children, who range in age from four to ten.

This has been particularly important in caring for Joshua, the couple's oldest son, who has epilepsy and has been hospitalized several times because of seizures. Tom's job means he's home every morning before the children leave for school and every afternoon when they return.

"If I were full time, I'd have to be in the building by 6:45 a.m.," Tom says. "That just didn't work for our family."

Without health care coverage, Tom would face a painful choice: return to work full time, which would take him away from the kids, or pay for his own insurance, which would impose a huge drain on the household budget. As he puts it, "It would take either money away from our family or time away."

Theresa Roetter, a Madison attorney who specializes in adoption cases, says same-sex couples with children are justifiably worried. She says clients are increasingly turning away from more accepted forms of permanency for children, such as adoption, and accepting legal relationships, like guardianships, in order to have "something they feel will be unassailable" if the constitutional amendment passes.

"What people are looking for is whatever they can get to ensure the child has a legal place in their home," Roetter says. They are worried that their relationships, even their right to parent, will be "subject to collateral attack in the courts later."

Fair Wisconsin, the main group fighting the ban, has recruited volunteers in each of the state s seventy-two counties to educate people in their own communities about the ramifications of the constitutional amendment.

"We try to emphasize how this will impact real people," says Josh Freker, the group's communications director. "We try to make sure people understand what's potentially at stake with that. We want people to know it would outlaw civil unions and would jeopardize any sort of legal protections for unmarried couples."

Dan Freund is an attorney who practices in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He volunteered his efforts to help defeat the ban because, as a Unitarian, he feels it is his duty to defend people's civil rights. "My religious faith calls on me to be active in the pursuit of fairness, justice, and equality," he says.

Freund has spoken to more than a dozen civic and religious groups, including the Rotary, Lions, and Kiwanis clubs. He says he's been pleasantly surprised by how receptive many of the groups have been.

Freund said he often tells the story of an Eau Claire woman who was prevented from visiting her longtime partner in a local hospital room because the couple was not considered family.

"They had been together longer than my wife and I," says Freund, who has been married for twenty-four years. If the ban passes, he tells his audiences, the legislature would be prohibited from ever passing a law that would require hospitals to extend visiting privileges to same-sex partners.

Like Freund, many people of faith are taking a stand against the marriage and civil unions ban. The Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ, representing 241 congregations statewide, opposes it, as does the Wisconsin United Methodist Conference, the Wisconsin Jewish Conference, and the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, among others. All told, faith institutions representing nearly 500,000 congregants in Wisconsin publicly oppose this constitutional amendment.

"The ban violates Christian and Jewish values of compassion and fairness," says Eric Peterson, Fair Wisconsin's faith outreach director.

Neither Ray Vahey nor Richard Taylor counted themselves as politically active until the proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Now Vahey has a table reserved in his study for stuffing envelopes with literature opposing the amendment. And both have testified against the ban at the state capitol.

There, in the state assembly parlor, Vahey and Taylor took note of a large painting depicting the battleship Wisconsin under attack by kamikaze pilots during World War II. The scene was familiar to Taylor. After joining the navy at seventeen, he was assigned to a naval tanker on convoy duty in the Mediterranean Sea and North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

His tanker, in fact, came under kamikaze attack in the same waters as the battleship Wisconsin.

"He valiantly put himself in harm's way to protect his country and all the generations that followed, and now they want to take away his right to justice and equality under the law," Vahey says. "It's ironic, to say the least."

Illustration by Zela Lobb

Judith Davidoff covers social issues for The Capital Times in Madison. She previously reported for The Progressive on welfare reform programs aimed at single fathers.
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Author:Davidoff, Judith
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2006
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