Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Delaware Same Sex Marriage Bill Clears Committee And Now Heads To Full House, 9th Circuit Court Of Appeals Hears Arguments For And Against California’s Ban On Gay Conversion Therapy, Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee Votes To Repeal State’s Anti-Gay Sodomy Law

In Delaware, a bill legalizing same sex marriage in the state is headed to the House floor for a vote after a committee approved the measure Wednesday in a hearing that drew an overflow crowd. According to the Associated Press, the House Administration Committee voted 4-1 to send the measure to the full House. Democratic Governor Jack Markell has promised to sign the bill if it passes the Democrat-controlled General Assembly. The measure was introduced last week, a little more than a year after Delaware first began recognizing same sex civil unions. Authors of the bill admitted that, from a state perspective, the bill offers little if any new legal benefits to same sex couples in civil unions. But they said couples in same sex relationships deserve the same dignity and respect afforded to married couples. “Marriage is obviously a different status that provides a level of dignity that civil unions does not provide,” said Mark Purpura of Equality Delaware, a gay rights group that drafted the legislation. Purpura noted that if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars legally married gay couples from receiving federal benefits, civil unions would not provide any protections under federal law to same sex couples in Delaware. House Minority Whip Deborah Hudson (R-Wilmington) opposes the state measure, but nevertheless joined Democratic committee members in voting to send it to the House floor, saying the legislation deserves a debate by the full House. Under the proposal, no new civil unions would be performed after July 1, and couples in civil unions could convert to marriages before July 2014 by applying for a marriage license. On July 1, 2014, all remaining civil unions not subject to dissolution, annulment or legal separation would automatically convert to marriages. Lisa Goodman, president of Equality Delaware, said some 500 couples have entered civil unions in Delaware since that law took effect last year. Other couples have gone out of state to get married or have chosen to wait until Delaware recognizes same sex marriage, she said. Opponents of the same sex marriage bill argue that it redefines and destroys the institution of marriage. “What this represents is a complete unraveling of what marriage is,” said Nicole Theis, executive director of the Delaware Family Policy Council, a conservative group that has opposed both same sex civil unions and marriage. Other opponents argued that homosexuality is contrary to both nature and Biblical teachings. “This is against God, the word of God,” said Tobe Witmer, a Newark pastor. Richard Smith, president of the Delaware Chapter of the NAACP, said same sex marriage is a right. “Nobody should be denied a privilege or anything when they’re in love,” he said. “We as people cannot judge. We are not God. God will make that decision, not us.”

In California, a federal appeals court on Wednesday tussled with the legality of the state's unprecedented ban on gay conversion therapy for minors, suggesting it could be upheld despite reservations about the free speech rights of counselors who support the practice. According to the San Jose Mercury News, during two hours of arguments, a three-judge 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel grilled lawyers on both sides of the issue, wondering aloud how to apply the First Amendment to psychotherapy aimed at trying to convert gay teens to being straight. California in January became the first state in the nation to outlaw the therapy, concluding it serves no purpose and is harmful to minors. Chief 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski, while clearly concerned about trampling on free speech rights, at one point told a lawyer for parents challenging the law that it seems the Legislature has the leeway to regulate licensed mental health professionals through such a ban. "It's really a fine line," he said. "Why can't the Legislature say, 'Look, if you want to be a licensed professional, this is the type of therapy you can't (do)?'" In two separate cases, a group of therapists and families sued to block the law, arguing it interferes with religious practices and violates therapists' free speech rights by barring gay conversion discussions between young patients and their counselors. Two Sacramento federal judges have split on the question, one upholding the law and the other finding it violates the First Amendment. The case is being closely watched as other states (New Jersey and Massachusetts) among them, consider similar laws. Mathew Staver, head of Liberty Counsel, a group challenging the law, called the ban "breathtakingly broad," insisting there is conflicting evidence on whether it is justified and that it is preventing teens that choose the therapy from getting professional help. Therapists who violate the law risk losing their licenses. But the judges expressed doubts about whether such "talk therapy" is covered by First Amendment protections. Judge Susan Graber asked whether in fact it is speech or medical treatment. And Judge Morgan Christen at another point appeared taken aback when another attorney for the therapists could not offer specific evidence that such therapy succeeds in changing gay minors' sexual orientation. The judges, however, also pressed Deputy Attorney General Alexandra Gordon on whether the evidence the Legislature relied upon to enact the ban was too anecdotal to risk eroding free speech protections, citing past court decisions that could be problematic for the state. That includes a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down California's ban on the sale of violent video games to minors because it violated the First Amendment. Kozinski, in fact, noted that psychotherapy generally involves "speaking opinion," expressing concern about the lack of scientific proof of harm to minors from conversion therapy. "The evidence before the Legislature is weak," Kozinski told Gordon. The state's lawyer disagreed, saying every major medical and mental health organization now disapproves of the therapy on minors. Defenders of the ban say the state has a right to regulate licensed professionals and practices considered harmful to minors. "We're shutting it down because of the harm of that practice," Gordon said. "It falls below the standard of care."

In Texas, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted on Wednesday to repeal the state's anti-gay sodomy law, a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. Texas, along with Oklahoma and Kansas, will be the only states that still have the law on the books after Montana's legislature approved its repeal of the measure and the governor pledged to sign it. The Associated Press reports that Senator Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) authored the bill and said the state was long overdue in taking the measure off the books and that it created confusion among law enforcement. "This defunct law was the grounds for police to harass patrons of restaurants in my district resulting in a suit against the city of El Paso," he said, describing a 2009 incident where police arrested a same-sex couple for kissing. "Not only is the continued existence of this law on the books a source of misinformation to law enforcement, but in my own district local governments have been forced to spend their limited resources due to this misuse." Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston) said he tried to get the law repealed in 1993, but conservatives in the Texas House blocked the attempt. "All you're doing is following court rulings and taking unconstitutional language off the books," he said. The State Bar of Texas, the American Civil Liberties Union and the pro-gay rights group Equality Texas supported the bill. No one registered with the committee to oppose it and it passed 5-0. The bill was sent to the full Senate for a vote. The Legislature outlawed homosexual activity in 1973, but when a Houston man was charged with sodomy he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court declared the law unconstitutional in a landmark ruling that overturned all of the nation's sodomy laws. Democrats have also proposed a new law that would make discriminating against gays for employment illegal, but that measure is unlikely to pass due to conservative opposition.

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