Bisbee, Arizona Wants Civil Unions

Bisbee, Arizona Wants Civil Unions May 5, 2013

Our old friend Radley Balko reports on an attempt by the little town of Bisbee, Arizona to allow civil unions to be performed, something the state says is forbidden and is trying to stop. The state attorney general even filed a lawsuit to stop it, though it has apparently now been settled.

The problem is that in the U.S., most legal protections for marriage are codified at the state level. Conners and Badal knew they couldn’t grant rights to same-sex couples that the state wouldn’t enforce, but they did come up with an ordinance that granted as many legal protections as a small town could. Bisbee, for example, owns a cemetery, so the ordinance granted the same interment rights to same-sex couples and their families that the town gives to heterosexual families. The ordinance also granted same-sex families the right to get family passes at the public swimming pool, the right to the same land-use permits, and — perhaps most significantly — visitation rights and power of attorney to make medical decisions at the local hospital.

Other cities in Arizona have granted certain rights to same-sex couples, but none has gone as far as Bisbee has. The bill passed the city council 5-2. But that vote was only the beginning of a battle that has since put the town in the spotlight.

Now a compromise has been reached with the state:

Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne withdrew his threat to sue Bisbee on Monday after its lawyers agreed to rewrite a controversial ordinance recognizing same-sex couples and remove rights that Horne said were reserved for married couples as defined under Arizona law.

Bisbee will still grant same-sex couples official recognition under the agreement, but its civil-union ordinance will not be as groundbreaking as first envisioned.

The resulting language, which the Attorney General’s Office will help oversee, could provide a blueprint for other Arizona cities to confer some legal status on same-sex partnerships…

“We were concerned if the ordinance were to be enacted as written, it would be misleading,” Horne said. “People can inherit by wills, and people can enter into contracts with each other, which are binding under current law. Our fear was that people would refrain from doing that, thinking they were covered by civil unions.”

He wanted the ordinance to be clear that a civil-union contract could not confer rights covered by state law. Bisbee officials have said they intend to hold another vote and put the new version of the ordinance into effect later this summer.

Attorneys for Lambda Legal, a national legal organization that fights for civil rights for the gay community, who are providing technical advice to city officials, said they have also suggested that Bisbee remove any future confusion over the same-sex ordinance by replacing the phrase “civil union” with something like “registered partnership” or “family partnership.”

“There’s no dispute that the goal here is to have an ordinance that takes some new, creative steps to provide recognition for families in Bisbee and to provide some additional protections that the city has the ability to provide, perhaps in some new ways by allowing a public record for agreements that couples can make and official designations that any individual can make,” said Jennifer Pizer, law and policy project director for Lambda Legal. “These can be practical tools for families, and I think none of that is controversial.”

The only reason I know that Bisbee even exists is that it is the home of Doug Stanhope, one of the funniest — and sometimes most enraging — comedians of this generation.

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