Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Rhode Island Civil Unions Didn't Do the Job.

There are two arguments popular with conservatives who don't want to be quite as viciously anti-gay as Rick Santorum or Michelle Bachmann. One is that civil unions might be a perfectly fine substitute for marriage, and each state should establish it's own rules regarding marriage.

Rhode Island tried to do just that. The state passed a "civil union" bill instead of marriage with the intention of giving gay couples the same legal rights as straight couples. They found that, in spite of their best efforts, that was impossible.

The problem, it appears, is the Defense of Marriage Act, supported by conservatives like Ron Paul. They argue that DOMA "only" protects the states and their "right" to regulate marriage as they see fit. Rhode Island, however, discovered that DOMA actually prevents them from giving some rights to gay couples that intended to give.

When a person dies in Rhode Island, their spouse has an unlimited inheritance right from the estate of the deceased. This means, for instance, that if a man dies, his wife may inherit all his wealth without have to pay inheritance taxes on them. But, for all other beneficiaries of the estate the amount that may be inherited without paying taxes is capped at $859,350.

But, the problem arises because these matters are determined according to federal tax filings regarding the estate. And DOMA says that the federal government must treat gay couples in discriminatory manner, never giving them the same rights as a straight couple.

The state tax office says they are in a bind. The sponsor of the Civil Union bill is attempting to rescue a bill that is highly unpopular within the gay community. He insists that the tax office can just go ahead anyway.

Legislators are unsure of what to do. They had had hoped to create an equal legal situation for gay couples, in the face of the heated opposition of Republicans. But they failed. Interestingly state sponsored studies of civil unions in New Jersey and Vermont both determined that civil unions fail in their goals. The Massachusetts Supreme Court came to a similar conclusion. They don't work the way they are intended. And DOMA is just one reason. But who can resist the pure romance of a loving couple being declared civilly unionized?

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