It’s long past time to talk about civil unions in West Virginia

This year I introduced in the House of Delegates a bill that would have permitted same-sex couples to enter into what are called civil unions.

The bill would have guaranteed every right and privilege of marriage to such couples. But the union would not be called a marriage.

I began thinking about introducing such a bill five years ago. Three years ago, I was prepared to introduce it but was dissuaded from doing so by advocates of gay rights.

Fairness West Virginia, the largest advocacy group for the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people was concerned that the introduction of a civil union bill would make it more difficult to pass another bill, one they considered more urgent. That would be the bill to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual preference in employment and housing.

I have for many years been a sponsor of that bill as well, and I have been the lead sponsor in the House of Delegates for the last two years. I certainly did not want to do anything that would jeopardize its passage. So I agreed to hold off on the civil union bill.

Two years in a row the State Senate passed the “antidiscrimination” bill overwhelmingly, thanks in great part to the efforts of Jeff Kessler, then chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and now Senate President. But unfortunately, the House of Delegates never took the bill up for consideration, even in committee. I know not why.

It’s a custom in the West Virginia Legislature that when a bill passes one house but is not taken up by the other house the house that passed it chooses to not take it up again until it passes the recalcitrant house first. It was unusual that the Senate would pass the antidiscrimination bill the second time after the House of Delegates refused to take it up.

    Be that as it may, I determined last fall to not wait any longer to introduce a civil union bill. After three years of waiting for the antidiscrimination bill to pass I believed a new strategy was necessary.

    I had no illusions that a civil union bill could pass anytime soon, certainly not in the first year it was introduced. Many bills on far less controversial topics languish for several years after their original introductions.

    But I thought it was long past time to start a conversation in West Virginia about civil unions. Polls show ever increasing support among West Virginians for civil unions. Some polls now actually show a slim majority for such a law.

    By contrast, polls still indicate strong opposition to gay marriage. So that’s why I chose to make the bill a civil union one and not a gay marriage one.

    Why, you might ask, would the name make a difference if the substance of the bill is the same? Good question, and I don’t know the answer. All I can say is that for many years I favored civil unions but not gay marriage because of the religious connotation of the word marriage.

    The civil union bill I sponsored exempted any religious organization from having to recognize the unions that would be legalized under it. Ironically, the gay marriage law recently passed by the New York State Legislature gave the same exemption. Marriages recognized under that law have the same effect as a civil marriage performed for heterosexual couples by a judge or a sea captain.

    The civil union bill I sponsored this year had exactly the same provisions as the New York State gay marriage law. Aha, what’s in a name?

    Gay marriage will be legal in West Virginia sooner than you might think. The only reason it will take longer to pass such a law in our state than in most others is the fact that West Virginia has the oldest average age of all the 50 states and the divide on this issue is generational.

—John Doyle represents the 57th District in the West Virginia House of Delegates.

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