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Just Married? 

Do same-sex couples have a shot at legal unions in Louisiana? A case challenging the City of New Orleans' recognition of domestic partners might have the answer.

When Robert Turner and Donald St. Pierre held a ceremony honoring their lifelong commitment to one another, they included the African tradition of jumping the broom.

Their April 2002 ceremony incorporated marriage rites from several cultures, but jumping the broom held special meaning for the two men. "Slaves were not allowed to marry," Turner says, "so they created their own ritual to signify marriage. We are not allowed to marry, so we incorporated their significant act into our ceremony."

Turner and St. Pierre have lived with each other for more than six years and have done everything possible to legally tie their lives together. They co-own an elegant Victorian house Uptown, they've named each other as beneficiaries in their wills and trusts, and each has granted the other medical power of attorney. Two days after their commitment ceremony, the couple added their names to the domestic-partner registry at City Hall.

The City Council established the registry in 1993 after hearing from constituents who wanted a way to legally register as domestic partners. Only then could they receive domestic-partner benefits their employers were offering, council members said.

That same year, the council voted that the city should become one of those employers, giving lesbian and gay partners the same status as spouses on the municipal-employee health plan. Then-Mayor Sidney Barthelemey, though, vetoed the measure. In 1997, his successor, Marc Morial, reversed Barthelemey's decision, signing an executive order extending health benefits to the same-sex partners of municipal employees and to those partners' children. Unlike married beneficiaries, domestic partners must pay tax on the value of the benefits. The city's plan excludes heterosexual unmarried partners because those couples are free to marry. It went into effect in 1999.

To register as domestic partners, couples provide a notarized affidavit stating that they live together, "share one another's lives in an intimate and committed relationship of mutual caring," and are jointly responsible for living expenses.

Neither Turner nor St. Pierre work for the City of New Orleans. Both have separate health-insurance policies through their employers, and they say that being registered as domestic partners doesn't really serve a practical purpose for them. It's just another way to publicly affirm their commitment.

"I consider ours a sanctified and holy relationship," St. Pierre says. "I don't let other people's opinions bother me."

Lionel Brackitt's opinion, however, is that the union of Turner and St. Pierre should have no legal recognition whatsoever. "It's against God's law, and it's an abomination," Brackitt says. "I think it's wrong. I know it's wrong."

Brackitt is one of six people who sued the city this year to abolish the city's domestic-partner registry and rescind Morial's order granting benefits to gay and lesbian partners. The six New Orleans residents contend the domestic-partner registry violates state law forbidding local governments from enacting an ordinance "governing private civil relationships." The plaintiffs complain the city's health plan spends public money on a class of beneficiaries they say should not be legally recognized.

"You cannot have every little municipality in Louisiana defining family and marriage in their own way," says Mike Johnson, a Shreveport-based attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a nonprofit Christian legal organization that sued on the plaintiffs' behalf. "The defendants in this case tried to present [us] as being hatemongers and homophobes, and that's not what this is about. It's about a lot more than gay people. It's about any assault on the traditional recognition of the marriage and family." He points out that the registry includes straight couples, too. "It's not against homosexuals," he says.

Brackitt and four others named in the suit attend the Vieux Carré Assembly of God Church in the French Quarter, where the sixth plaintiff, the Rev. Gregory Pembo, is pastor. Pembo led protests against Morial's executive order in 1997, but it wasn't until he spoke with ADF members this year that he realized he could challenge the city in court.

Pembo says he's trying to stop "a domino effect" of social deterioration. "The moral guideposts are being taken down one by one," he says.

About 55 cities and counties across the country have domestic-partner registries similar to New Orleans', according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). This year, as gay marriage is becoming a polarizing political issue across America, conservative groups are targeting such registries, predicting they will pave the way for legal marriage for gays and lesbians. ADF has filed legal challenges against several of them nationwide, with mixed results.

Johnson says ADF is motivated by the concern that a legal definition of marriage as anything except a union between a man and a woman will open up marriage to any partnership who wants it.

"When you tear down the taboos, the doors open up for everything. That's the danger," Johnson says. "If it's unfair to tell two men they can't get married, then it's unfair for a bisexual person to not be allowed to marry one of each. There's no limit to it.

"We are not trying to tie homosexuality to pedophilia, but when you tear down one barrier, others fall," Johnson continues. "Somebody out there is going to say, 'I love this 14-year-old boy, and he loves me; we should be able to get married.' That is not a stretch of the imagination. Let's stop here and draw the line here, because then it leads to sexual anarchy."

Civil District Judge Yada Magee is presiding over the domestic-partner registry case; a hearing is scheduled for this week. No trial date has been set, and it's likely one or both sides will move for a summary judgment, meaning Magee could rule on the issue as early as the spring of 2004.

Should the case go to trial or summary judgment, Johnson will again face Brian Chase, the lawyer from the Dallas office of the national gay-rights group Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. Through their respective organizations, Johnson and Chase squared off earlier this year in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down Texas' sodomy law as unconstitutional -- a decision that both sides of the gay-marriage debate call momentous.

After Johnson filed suit, Lambda joined New Orleans in the city's defense of its ordinances. Chase filed an intervention on behalf of a city worker and his gay partner, both of whom receive insurance benefits through the municipal-employee health plan. Chase contends the domestic-partner registry does not attempt to "govern private civil relationships" in violation of state law, but is simply a means by which to bestow an employment benefit.

"That provision of the state constitution is not talking about marriage, it's talking about contract law," Chase says. "That provision is to guarantee that when you enter into a business contract, the partnerships are the same across the state. It was never meant to govern what benefits an employer can offer its employees," he says.

"I think [this case] is just going to underscore the colossal difference between marriage and domestic-partner arrangements," Chase says. "There are hundreds of state benefits and thousands of federal benefits that these couples are denied access to, no matter how long they've been together and how committed they are."

Chase doesn't believe this challenge was motivated by anything but hate. "It's kind of disingenuous to argue that you don't hate somebody," he says, "when you're trying to take their health insurance away from them and their children."

Peter Sabi is the city employee who filed to intervene in the suit. A building inspector who specializes in code enforcement for historic properties, Sabi enrolled his longtime partner, Philip Centanni Jr., last year for the health benefits offered on the city's plan. Centanni, a freelance writer who sells antiques part time, is not eligible for any other employee group plan. Both men agreed to be interviewed for this article, but not photographed, citing fears for their physical safety.

Centanni had previously paid thousands of dollars per year for private insurance. The cost of the city's insurance plan is just a fraction of that amount, and the couple laugh as they wonder why they didn't sign Centanni up earlier.

"When I heard [the benefits] were being challenged, I couldn't believe it," Sabi says. "I contacted the law department to find out if indeed it was true, and I found out it was. I asked what I could do to help and that's when I was asked if I was interested in being an intervener.

"I talked to Philip about it, and we agreed we had to do whatever we could do to help," Sabi says. "Not only us, but other domestic partners who are in the same situation."

Like the plaintiffs on the other side, these men say they're acting because the case is about a bigger issue than health benefits. Sabi and Centanni say they're taking a stand to defend their definition of a family, and to stop a group of people from "trying to impose their religious beliefs on a government body," Centanni says.

"They say they're defending the family, but they're actually tearing families apart. They say they want people in stable relationships, yet they're discouraging people from forming relationships," he says. "The domestic partner registry strengthens the family. It puts on a piece of paper that there are two people in a committed, caring, loving relationship, and that's the definition of a family."

Asked about the plaintiffs' contention that legally recognizing same-sex unions would pave the way for "taboo" marriages that could include multiple partners or children, both men scoff. "That's an assumption that one leads to another," Sabi adds. "It's all fear-based."

Gregory Pembo, the pastor named as a plaintiff in the suit, wouldn't argue with that one. He says he's not acting out of hate, but out of the fear that the more comfortable America gets with homosexuality, the more comfortable it will get with other partnerships that are now socially objectionable. "I think step by step we have had an acceptance of homosexuality," Pembo says. "They've done a good job of seducing the nation through television and the media."

The other part of Pembo's legal argument is that the city spends his tax money on a program he considers illegal and immoral. Johnson, the ADF attorney, says he is trying to determine exactly how much money is spent on domestic-partner insurance, but has not gotten any figures from city attorneys. The city has said it can't pin down an exact number of domestic partners receiving health benefits, because its insurance plan with United Healthcare of Louisiana doesn't identify relationships between beneficiaries.

"There aren't that many couples claiming the benefits -- fewer than 10. It's unclear, because they all get thrown into the same pool," says Chase. "The city's insured are all in the same pool, and the city pays out of it. Even if the whole program was costing some small amount to the city, it would be pennies for each individual taxpayer -- less than pennies. It would be too small to calculate." Chase adds the domestic-partner registry is a moneymaker for the city, charging a $35 fee per couple and "all they get is a printed certificate."

Johnson acknowledges the taxpayers' burden may be low in this instance, but says it's not really about the money. "When your tax dollars are being spent in a way that violates the (state) Constitution, you have every right to take action," he says. "They have admitted that at least some amount of taxpayer funds are being used. It doesn't matter if the taxpayers' interest is small."

The outcome of New Orleans' domestic-partner registry case will likely serve as a barometer of the area's attitude toward gay partnerships. After the two recent victories for gay-rights activists -- the Texas sodomy case, and the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling last month that same-sex couples have the right to marry under that state's constitution -- both sides believe the national tide is turning toward the legal acceptance of gay unions, maybe even marriage.

Everyone agrees that Louisiana's conservative social and political climate make the state an unlikely battleground for the gay-marriage debate. There's also a general consensus that New Orleans is probably the only place in Louisiana where the defendants' argument now has a chance, so the ruling here is crucial to both sides.

Gay relationships in Louisiana have become more widely accepted in recent years, with at least two newspapers -- The Times-Picayune and the Banner-Tribune of Franklin -- printing announcements of same-sex unions in their wedding pages. U.S. Census figures show that Louisiana households headed by same-sex partners increased by 562 percent from 1990 to 2000 -- from 1,331 to 8,808 couples during that decade, figures show.

Still, no one believes gay unions will be legally recognized in Louisiana anytime soon.

Chris Daigle, a consultant to the Louisiana Lesbian and Gay Political Action Caucus (LAGPAC) and a longtime leader in the push for gay rights in Louisiana, says gay activists in the state aren't even thinking about legal marriage at this point. "We've been fighting for a decade for basic job protection, and it still hasn't happened," says Daigle, who recounts session after session of fruitless lobbying for an anti-discrimination employment bill.

This year, Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, advanced a bill designed "to eliminate bullying and harassment" in public schools due to students' race, religion, color, ancestry, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity. After legislators made major amendments to the bill -- removing a clause that required teachers to report such harassment, and eliminating "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" from the list -- Richmond pulled it from consideration. "They really took all the teeth out of the bill," says Richmond, who didn't want it to go forth without a teacher reporting requirement.

Daigle notes that most House members had voted to exclude gay students from the measure. "So while marriage is certainly a concern and a long-term goal of many of Louisiana's same-sex partners and taxpayers, realistically, our priorities in Louisiana are still very indicative of basic survival," he says. "The safety of being able to keep our jobs and the physical safety for students in schools."

Across the country, an acceptance of gay relationships and a belief that same-sex partners should have civil rights doesn't necessarily translate to the conviction that gay people should be allowed to legally marry. National polls show that many people who oppose same-sex marriage would support legal civil unions, which give gay partners most of the legal rights and privileges associated with marriage.

The gay-marriage debate is poised to become a "wedge issue" in the 2004 political elections, potentially driving some voters away from candidates they'd normally support. Some conservative groups are calling for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would ban same-sex marriages, and pushing candidates to sign "defense of marriage" pledges.

Louisiana would probably be among the last states in the nation to allow gay legal unions, observers agree. "That's not in the foreseeable future in Louisiana," says political analyst Susan Howell, a University of New Orleans political science professor and director of the UNO Survey Research Center. "This is a socially conservative state; both whites and blacks are socially conservative, and we've even observed a conservative trend in abortion attitudes (in Louisiana). It's more pro-life here than it's been for the past 10 or 15 years.

"Gay marriage is more to the left of abortion, so I would suspect there would be very little public support in Louisiana," Howell says. "I don't think a politician would want to be up front about his or her support of gay marriage. The only place it could fly is in New Orleans."

According to national gay-rights organization the Human Rights Campaign, four New Orleans employers currently offer insurance to same-sex partners: Louisiana ACORN, the Times-Picayune Corp., Tulane University, and the City of New Orleans. In addition, Friedrichs Custom Manufacturing Inc. in River Ridge and Ferrara Fire Apparatus in Holden offer such coverage. Supporters of the domestic-partner registry contend that if the city's interested in attracting quality businesses to the area, it had better maintain the registry.

Peter Sabi quotes Human Rights Campaign statistics that say a third of the Fortune 500 companies in the United States offer domestic-partner benefits to employees. "If a corporation wants to move its home base to New Orleans and they want to offer insurance to their employees' domestic partners, they would want to be in a city that has a domestic-partner registry," Sabi says. "So that's another avenue where the city's progressive and trying to attract larger companies to do business here. It makes New Orleans an attractive city as far as economic development and social well-being."

Louisiana has its own version of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which provides that states do not have to recognize same-sex unions that are legal in other jurisdictions. The federal act defines "marriage" as a union between a man and a woman, and "spouse" as a husband or wife of the opposite sex. Louisiana's law echoes the same assertions for the state level.

A number of other countries are more accepting of gay unions. This summer, Canada took steps toward legal recognition of marriage between same-sex couples, without a residency requirement to marry there. Gay marriage is legal in the Netherlands and Belgium, though the Netherlands have a long residency requirement to marry there, and Belgium's law says the country where the couple has citizenship must allow legal gay unions.

Some Scandinavian countries allow couples to register as domestic partners, and Taiwan's government is currently drafting legislation that, pending parliamentary approval, would allow same-sex partners to marry. Thanks to DOMA, such unions wouldn't be recognized in this country, though challenges to DOMA are predicted to surface.

The growing acceptance of gay relationships in America means "the heat has been turned up," says Johnson, of ADF.

"Somebody described this to me last week as the impending cultural civil war -- the homosexual agenda's assault on the traditional family. And in a civil war," he says, "everybody gets involved."

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