With civil unions, Bisbee, Ariz., joins gay-rights revolt against red states
Bisbee, Ariz., tried to legalize same-sex civil unions but was shot down by the state. Now it has tweaked the measure to get it on the books, joining other cities in red states that are passing ordinances to promote gay rights.
Until recent weeks, this old mining town tucked in the mountains of southeast Arizona was known as a mecca for artists, retirees, and tourists who linger in eclectic shops, bookstores, and cafés. Now many also regard it as a beacon of hope for gay rights.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Gay marriage debate
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In a state with a conservative edge, Bisbee, population 5,600, in early April became the first municipality in Arizona to legalize same-sex civil unions. On Tuesday, after threats by Arizona's attorney general to sue Bisbee for exceeding its powers and interfering in state affairs, town leaders tweaked the ordinance to omit references to "spouses" and "marriage" and to refer to its civil unions only as contractual agreements.
But the intent is still the same – to lay down a marker that, inside these city limits, a red state becomes a blue oasis on the issue of gay rights. And Bisbee is not alone.
From St. Paul, Minn., to Lawrence, Kan., to Columbia, Miss., municipalities across the country are increasingly crafting laws to offer some rights to same-sex couples and gay individuals in defiance of their own states. The trend has occurred as public opinion grows more favorable toward same-sex marriage, with the success of local gay rights ordinances often depending on how much leeway state courts give localities in interpreting state laws.
Despite some legal setbacks – as in Bisbee – "in the overwhelming number of those cases, the local governments have prevailed," says Jennifer Pizer, an attorney with Lambda Legal, the nation's oldest legal organization working for gay rights.
In Tampa, Fla., the increasing willingness to embrace gay rights was reflected in a local ordinance unanimously passed last year that set up a domestic partnership registry allowing legal protections for same-sex couples involving matters such as medical decisions and hospital visitations.
"Things went very smoothly here," says Kate Taylor, assistant city attorney in Tampa. "We had very little opposition at the public hearings."
In other places, attempts to offer protections for gay people, which many see as a step toward same-sex marriage, have been volatile. In Pocatello, Idaho, a community with a significant Mormon population, the city council narrowly rejected an ordinance in April aimed at making discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity a misdemeanor crime. A month earlier, after Royal Oak, Mich., adopted an ordinance to ban discrimination against gays in housing and employment, a petition seeking to repeal the measure by referendum put it on hold.
In Bisbee, the town's foray into same-sex recognition drew fiery opposition. On the night the city council originally approved the ordinance, several people chastised members for flouting "God's law."
The conservative Center for Arizona Policy, which supported Arizona's 2008 constitutional amendment that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman, deemed Bisbee's actions illegal.
Gene Conners, the Bisbee councilman who proposed sanctioning civil unions, says meetings between town attorneys and Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne led to the revised ordinance announced Tuesday. The original measure would have given those in same-sex civil unions the same rights as married couples in areas including community property and inheritance, and that is beyond the town's jurisdiction, Mr. Horne said at a recent news conference.
To placate Horne, Bisbee took out of its civil-union ordinance references to inheritance, property, and adoption rights. The compromise shows how, over the years, cities and towns have devised myriad creative ways to offer same-sex couples legal protections while trying to not overstep their authority, says Ms. Pizer of Lambda Legal.