Florida gay couples push for legal protection

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An anti-gay proposed Constitutional amendment that failed to gather enough signatures to be placed on the 2006 ballot should be thrown out altogether because it deceives voters, the American Civil Liberties Union argued before the Florida Supreme Court this week.

The measure, which anti-gay groups have vowed to place on the 2008 Presidential ballot, would ban equal marriage rights, permanently block civil unions and threaten existing domestic partnership protections across the state.

“The majority of Floridians are in favour of providing legal protections for lesbian and gay couples,” said Leslie Cooper, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU who appeared before Florida’s high court.

“Yet the proposed initiative was drafted to deceive the voters into believing they are voting just about marriage when in fact the proposed amendment could be used to attack the very protections for lesbian and gay couples that most Floridians support.”

Working with Equality Florida and the Fairness for all Families campaign, the ACLU and the National Centre for Lesbian Rights brought the legal challenge to the proposed initiative on behalf of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and six same-sex couples from across Florida.

Jon Durre and Robert Sullivan, who have been together for 11 years, had hoped to be in court to hear the arguments, but Mr Durre is fighting advanced prostate cancer and was too ill to travel from their home in Pensacola.

“Through my battle with cancer, we’ve come to know all too well the hardships of not having a legally recognized relationship,” he said.

“I’m unable to work, and my partner’s employer doesn’t provide domestic partner health insurance. Almost all of the money I receive from disability goes to health care costs. We went from being financially stable to struggling to make ends meet. On top of the financial challenges, we recognize that legally, Robert has no rights where I’m concerned – whether it’s hospital visitation or being kept out of decisions about my care or funeral arrangements after I die.” In court today, Miss Cooper argued that the initiative violates the single-subject rule of the Florida constitution because it includes both a ban on marriage and a ban on other legal protections for same-sex couples.

Polls from the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald and the Tampa Tribune/WFLA-TV indicate that the majority of Floridians are opposed to marriage for same-sex couples, yet the majority favour civil unions or other legal protection for same-sex couples. Allowing the proposed initiative to go forward would put voters in the position of having to make a choice about two separate issues on which many voters feel differently.

The Liberty Counsel, which drafted the initiative, says it only bans same-sex couples from marriage and “unions” that are the “substantial equivalent of marriage,” and not other legal recognition for lesbian and gay couples. However, this group has already tried to strip same-sex couples of domestic partner protections afforded by the City of Gainesville by claiming that the protections are illegal under Florida law because they are the substantial “equivalent” of marriage.

Richard Nolan and Bob Pingpank, who just celebrated their 50th anniversary together, are especially concerned about how this initiative would affect the domestic partner protections they are afforded by West Palm Beach. Nolan, a retired Episcopal priest, and Pingpank, a retired math teacher, are facing the same concerns that all seniors must face. Nolan has already been hospitalised several times – for a heart attack and a severe gall stone attack.

“When West Palm passed its domestic partner law, we thought we would no longer have to worry about visiting each other in the hospital or making emergency medical decisions for each other,” said Nolan.

“But if this initiative is allowed to go forward, we have to face those worries all over again. It’s inconceivable to me that there are people in our state who want to amend our constitution to ignore the 50-year commitment we have to each other and treat us like legal strangers.”

Although the proponents of the initiative failed to get the required number of signatures to put the initiative on the ballot this November, they have said that they will continue collecting signatures in order to put the initiative on the ballot in 2008 if it is not struck down. The FairnessforAllFamilies.org campaign led by Equality Florida is organising across the state to counter the message of discrimination.

“When fair-minded Floridians come to understand just how harmful this initiative is to so many Florida families, they will reject this amendment,” said Nadine Smith, chair of the FairnessforAllFamilies.org campaign. “Laws should not make it harder to take care of the people you love.”

Karen Doering, Senior Counsel for the National Centre for Lesbian Rights added, “As the couples involved in this challenge demonstrate so clearly, real people face very real harms when lesbian and gay couples are treated as legal strangers. Florida voters deserve better than to be hoodwinked by a group of anti-gay activists into voting to amend the Florida Constitution in a way that will make families suffer.”

Source: www.aclu.org

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