Friday, February 27, 2009
Churches Play Major Role in Killing Measure
By Dan Boyd And Jeff Jones
Journal Staff Writer
SANTA FE After all the heated debate, packed galleries, intense politicking and predictions that the lieutenant governor might have to break a tie vote, it wasn't all that close.
The New Mexico Senate voted 25-17 to reject a controversial domestic partnerships bill Thursday, dealing a blow to the state's gay community as well as progressive Democrats who had made the bill a top priority.
Roll Call of Vote
Ten Democrats joined the body's 15 Republicans in opposing the bill.
The vote showed that organized religion can wield considerable power in New Mexico, with supporters and opponents of Senate Bill 12 saying church opposition played a large part in its defeat.
Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, said religious leaders in his northern New Mexico district including Catholics and Baptists opposed the bill over concerns that it might compel them to perform same-sex marriages.
"Anywhere up and down northern New Mexico, the clergy has indicated a desire to oppose this bill," Cisneros said. "I had at least 1,000 pieces of e-mail in opposition to this measure."
Although they had strong support from Gov. Bill Richardson, backers of the measure said opponents had a big advantage of another kind.
"We did not have the pulpits to preach on every Sunday to vilify homosexuals," said Linda Siegle, a lobbyist with Equality New Mexico.
The New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops actively opposed the bill as a perceived threat to traditional marriage, and some Albuquerque churches bused members to the Capitol to lobby and demonstrate.
"Praise be to God," said Glen Strock, a roving pastor from Santa Fe, following Thursday's vote "I think the constituents have spoken. They saw (the bill) as the Trojan horse it is."
While it's technically possible for the bill to be revived before the Legislature adjourns March 21, supporters said they don't expect that will happen.
Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque and sponsor of the measure, offered a last-ditch effort to save the legislation by removing references to "spouse" and other language opponents had criticized.
The bill called for domestic partners, both homosexual and heterosexual, to receive many of the same rights married couples have under New Mexico law, including the ability to take time off to care for an ill partner and make end-of-life decisions for each other.
However, opponents of the measure argued that the domestic partnerships bill would undermine traditional marriage and open the door for same-sex marriage in New Mexico.
They pointed out that two states California and Connecticut that had approved similar bills ultimately saw their laws struck down by courts.
Supporters asserted that a New Mexico law would reduce the likelihood of a successful court challenge and said the bill would give a much-needed "safety net" to long-term partners who don't currently have the ability, or the desire, to get married.
"We want to emphasize that this bill is not a marriage bill," McSorley said.
Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, who voted against it, said voters in his conservative eastern New Mexico district were "over 50 to 1" against it.
"The Senate basically sent a message that they're not interested in passing anything on domestic relations," Ingle said after the vote.
"I think the issue's dead for this session and probably for the next few years here," Ingle predicted. "This was probably the biggest push I've ever seen to pass this bill."
A similar bill has also been introduced in the House of Representatives, but supporters of domestic partnerships said that legislation will likely languish.
"We're not going to make the House members vote on a bill we can't get through the Senate," Siegle said.
Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who last week told the Journal that she would cast vote in favor of domestic partnerships in the event of a Senate tie, said she was disappointed.
"All the way along, I was told it would be a close vote," Denish said.
"It's very difficult for people to understand that it's good economic policy. It's good health-care policy," she said.
Denish sees no chance that the measure will be reconsidered in the Senate this year.
"It wasn't close enough to do that," she said.
"I'm disappointed by the Senate's actions today in defeating what is fundamentally an issue of civil rights and equality," said Richardson, who has been pushing the legislation for several years.
Partisans began packing the Senate gallery Thursday morning, hours before debate began.
After the vote, opponents smiled and hugged in the hallways.
Sen. Bernadette Sanchez, D-Albuquerque, who reluctantly cast a decisive committee vote last week that pushed the bill to the Senate floor, voted against it Thursday.
"We voted, and I let it go down on the floor for the members to vote," Sanchez said.
Supporters held a somber gathering outside the Roundhouse and said they remain optimistic that New Mexico will pass a domestic partnership law at some point.
"You look at the younger generation and what we've been through on issues like interracial marriage," said Suzie Clark of Albuquerque, whose daughter is gay. "We'll look back and say, 'What's the big deal?' "