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Sep 11, 2007 News: California Governor Urged to Sign the Equal Marriage Bill
By Danny Sonnenschein

(USA) - Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger must sign the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act to ensure basic human rights to all citizens of California, Human Rights Watch urged in a letter to the governor. The legislation grants full marriage equality for same-sex couples, within the limitations of the restrictive federal legislation. Schwarzenegger had vetoed a similar bill when passed by California's legislature 2005.

"Arnold Schwarzenegger has been given one of the rarest things in life: a second chance to do the right thing," said Boris Dittrich, advocacy director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program at HRW. "Twice, California legislators have supported the human rights of lesbian and gay couples, and now the governor should do the same."

The California State Senate approved AB 43, The Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, on September 7 by a vote of 22-15. The legislature's lower house, the State Assembly, had passed the Act earlier this year by a vote of 42-34. The governor has until October 14 to sign or veto the bill extending civil marriage to Gay couples.

The California bill would define marriage in gender-neutral terms as a union between two individuals. It would extend, where possible, the same state protections of marriage to homosexual couples as to heterosexual ones. Religious fundamentalist groups are permitted to refuse to perform a marriage ceremony if their beliefs disapprove it.

"Countries from the Netherlands to South Africa have recognized that marriage should include, not exclude," said Dittrich, who as a member of the Dutch parliament sponsored the first successful legislation in the world extending marriage to same-sex couples. "The US government should also see that the politics of prejudice destroys families." At the national level, Belgium, Canada, South Africa and Spain have also passed laws opening marriage rights to lesbian and gay couples.

The California bill is praised by the HRW as an important step toward ending the discrimination and damaging burdens that the lack of access to marriage imposes on same-sex partners. The positive effects of the California legislation would be limited by the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The DOMA was passed by Congress by a vote of 85-14 in the Senate and a vote of 342-67 in the House of Representatives, and was signed by President Bill Clinton on September 21, 1996.

DOMA regulates that no state or other political subdivision within the United States need recognize a marriage between persons of the same sex, even if the marriage was concluded or recognized in another state. Also, the Federal Government may not recognize same-sex marriages for any purpose, even if concluded or recognized by one of the states. Consequently, all rights regulated by federal legislation were restricted to heterosexual marriages only, such as sponsoring a foreign pertner for immigration, or inheritance rights.

HRW and Immigration Equality have documented the devastating effects of non-recognition on couples caught in the US immigration system in the report "Family, Unvalued: discrimination, Denial, and the Fate of Binational Same-Sex Couples Under US Law".

"Only federal action can fully end discrimination against lesbian and gay couples in the US," said Dittrich. "But states like California can send a message, and the governor should lend his voice."

Without federal recognition of their marriages, Gay couples may be denied shared health or employment benefits, protections against domestic violence, inheritance rights, the right to raise a child together, the right to make medical decisions for a sick partner or a partner's child, and rights to equal tax benefits and joint insurance policies.

The letter from HRW to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, can be viewed on hrw.org.

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