Domestic Partnerships Bill Fails In New Mexico Senate

Trip Jennings

Last week, the New Mexico Senate voted 25-17 to oppose conferring many of the same rights enjoyed by married couples to same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples in a committed relationship.

SANTA FE — The two crowds couldn’t have been more different. One was joyous, the other tearful.

Moments before, the New Mexico Senate voted 25-17 to oppose
conferring many of the same rights enjoyed by married couples to
same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples in a committed relationship.

Gathered in a lobby on the west side of the Capitol, victorious
opponents stood in a circle. Hands clasped with smiles plastered on
their faces and their eyes closed, they listened as someone led a
prayer in thanks for the bill’s defeat.

“Remember God loves them as much as He loves us,” Daniel Ruiz, an
opponent, shouted to others as the impromptu prayer broke up. Ruiz
explained later that he was referring to gays and lesbians.

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On the other side of the Roundhouse a larger crowd, with many of
those gays and lesbians Ruiz had referred to, clustered around a
tearful Marybeth Lennox. Some individuals wiped away tears. Others wore
the hangdog look of the defeated. Still others looked shell-shocked.

“Where were our supporters?” Lennox, a field organizer with the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights organization, shouted. “You’ve got to push, make phone calls.”

Lennox sounded frustrated, perhaps at the legislation’s defeat or possibly at the thumping supporters had just taken.

For a vote that had been touted as being so close no one knew how
the Senate was going to go — in support of domestic partnerships, or
against — the eight-vote margin on the Senate floor against domestic
partnerships had turned out to be the biggest surprise Thursday.

Two years ago, the legislation had failed by one vote in committee. Last year, it was a two-vote margin in a committee.

With the House and Senate adding several progressive lawmakers to
their ranks this year, supporters had viewed this year as the best shot
yet for New Mexico to pass domestic partnership legislation, and to
make a signal statement in the national debate over gay rights.

With the exception of Hawaii, all the states that recognize same sex marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships are on the East Coast or West Coast (pdf).

But advocates had learned not to fall to the temptation of
overconfidence. No one expected passage of the legislation to be easy.

What supporters ran into this year was a buzzsaw of opposition, and
a confluence of factors that worked against the bill’s passage.

Several lawmakers interviewed Thursday spoke of a push by both sides that was unrivaled by campaigns in previous years.

“I received 2,500 e-mails in two days,” said Sen. Pete Campos,
D-Las Vegas, who was one of 10 Democrats to side with 15 Republicans to
kill the bill Thursday. Last year, Campos publicly announced that he
supported domestic partnerships.

Roughly, 90 percent of the e-mails were from people opposed, he
said. At the same time, his office got 750 calls over the same period.
There, the split was closer, with opponents composing about 60 percent
of the calls.

Meanwhile, New Mexico’s Catholic Church jumped into the debate over domestic partnerships this year after two years of staying largely out of the issue.

“There’s no question that they had a big influence,” said former Lt.
Gov. Walter Bradley, an opponent who lobbied lawmakers on the issue for
the Christian Life Committee of the state’s Southern Baptist Convention.

A spokesman for the Catholic Church, as well as Campos, explained
their change in position by pointing to what had happened in other
states over the past year.

The top courts in Connecticut and California during 2008 ruled that domestic partnerships – or civil unions in the case of Connecticut
– were inherently legally unfair and were not the same as marriage.
Citing equal protection under the law, each state’s Supreme Court
struck down the laws creating domestic partnerships. The courts also
found a “fundamental right to marry” and ruled that marriage was
available to gay and lesbian couples.

“I’ve been watching this issue over the past year,” Campos said of the court rulings.

The experiences of California and Connecticut figured prominently in
opponents’ arguments throughout this year’s debate, including
Thursday’s discussion on the Senate floor.

“It makes New Mexico ripe for a court challenge,” Sen. William Payne, R-Albuquerque, said of the legislation. “This is a very cleverly crafted bill. It is designed to set up a court challenge.”

But the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Cisco McSorley,
D-Albuquerque, disputed that contention, saying the bill not only
included language saying that it wasn’t marriage, but to not pass it
could result in New Mexico getting same-sex marriage.

“If we pass this, the Supreme Court must consider what we have done,”
he said. “The Supreme Court will have to look at everything we have
done in this bill. They must conclude that we spoke and that we spoke
loudly and clearly.”

Still, to allay opponents’ fears, McSorley ran a substitute bill
Thursday that removed all language referring to domestic partnerships
granting the same protections to its recipients as state law does to
spouses. Replacing it was a phrase that said domestic partnerships were
granted rights “as contemplated by Section 40-1-1 NMSA 1978″ — the provision in state law that establishes marriage as a civil contract.

The substitute was offered as a possible peace offering to opponents
meant to garner a few more votes. Ultimately the strategy didn’t work.

Linda Siegle, a key lobbyist for the domestic partnerships
legislation, said what killed the legislation was not what happened in
other states or the lack of the substitute’s efficacy, but how
opponents framed the issue.

“I think religious organizations convinced people that this was marriage, when it was not even close to marriage,” Siegle said.

It is unclear whether the legislation will be brought up again this year.

“The margin makes it a little unlikely,” said Senate Minority Whip Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, who voted against the legislation.

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