Issue March 31, 2009

Say it straight

Clarity is a fundamental principle of a successful sentence.

In 2004, Kentuckians were asked to vote on what had been deemed “the Marriage Amendment” via this ballot question:

“Are you in favor of amending the Kentucky Constitution to provide that only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be a marriage in Kentucky, and that a legal status identical to or similar to marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized?”

The first part was clear enough: Was I in favor of changing the Constitution to explicitly prohibit gay marriage? I’m sure many of my fellow Kentuckians knew, like me, that this was already the law. But the second issue, or clause, was muddy. It wasn’t asking me to define marriage, like the previous clause/question; it was asking if I believed any other type of committed union between two people — gay or straight — should carry the same legal rights as marriage.

Sounds like two questions, no? I mean, “One man, one woman” had been the dominant bumper-sticker topic when it came to this amendment; legal rights of unmarried couples hadn’t really seen much air time.

Kentucky’s Constitution actually prohibits asking one question for separate issues on a ballot initiative; in other words, we cannot create two amendments with one vote. One question can, however, contain a follow-up — that is, if it’s closely related to the other question. But voters were asked to define marriage, then to vote on what legal rights others weren’t allowed to have. The addition didn’t change my opinion; I believe in equal rights for all.

Nevertheless, I was surprised by the sneak attack. I tend to get nervous in small places with curtains, especially when voting, so while I thought I knew what it was asking, I didn’t really have time to think about what this second part actually meant. It didn’t even occur to me until after I gave the nice old man my ticket that this ambush second part would also affect straight people.

What if I hated gays but I was living with a man, had three sons (they take after me), a mortgage, etc.? I would have to choose who I hated more, homos or myself.

In 2007, state Reps. Stan Lee (not the awesome “Spider-Man” one) and Tom Burch requested an opinion from then-Attorney General Greg Stumbo as to whether it was constitutional for the universities of Louisville and Kentucky to offer health insurance to the domestic partner of an employee, not just spouses.

Lee and Burch were concerned the universities’ initiative violated the marriage amendment; by offering equal healthcare opportunities, it afforded an unmarried couple the same legal status as a married couple.

After his thorough study of the criteria stated by both universities for status as a domestic partner, Stumbo issued an opinion saying universities were giving equal legal rights to poser relationships. He said universities could offer benefits to domestic partners, but the criteria couldn’t be exclusive to romantic relationships.

Lee and Burch had successfully used the amendment targeting gay marriage to deny rights to straight people as well. The bulky structure of the ballot question worked: We have an amendment vague enough to prove many social and moralistic arguments.

U of L now offers “Qualified Adult” coverage, a term that brings me so much joy: “No, I’m sorry, student or school administrator, you must be quiet and listen to me: I’m a Qualified Adult.”

“Sorry officer, I’m a Qualified Adult. I had to speed.”

Stumbo’s opinion is a must-read. There’s one line that is priceless: “It need hardly be mentioned that conjugal relations are considered among the essentials of marriage.”

I never knew law could be so risqué.

There is also a reference to a case from the 1940s, Corrigan v. Corrigan, with an amazing footnote: “[The] continuation of unexpectedly celibate marriage for ‘even one year’ [is] regarded as ‘unnatural and improbable.’”

Take that, homos!

In 2007 there was about a $300 difference between the average monthly cost of health insurance for a married couple and an employee + Qualified Adult. Words are expensive.

The ballot-question was written to be confusing. If a “Gay Marriage Amendment” can be used to deny rights to straight people, anything is possible.

The rights of unmarried couples weren’t discussed for a reason. For a writer, every word used is intentional, a choice with purposeful consequences. Even for a lawyer. Especially.