TUCSON -- An old copper mining town turned artist enclave in southern Arizona may be the first city in the conservative state to allow the civil union between any couple regardless of sexual orientation.
The move comes just days before the U.S. Supreme Court takes up the issue of same-sex marriage and follows a poll showing more than half of Americans support such marriages.
Tuesday evening, Bisbee City Council members voted to allow the next best thing to gay marriage. In a first reading of an ordinance, adding a chapter to its city charter, they cleared the way for civil unions. The vote by the seven-member council was unanimous, making it likely to pass on a final vote scheduled in two weeks.
“I think it’s time,” Mayor Adriana Zavala Badal said of the proposal. “We’ve been working on this as a country for a long time.”
The ordinance, which allows for a form of union regardless of the sexual orientation of the couple, would be effective only within Bisbee and affect certain benefits and policies within the city. Bisbee, situated along the U.S.-Mexico border, has about 5,600 residents.
Bisbee’s proposal borrowed language from a civil union bill proposed in the state Legislature, a measure unlikely to pass the two Republican-controlled chambers. Arizona has a law dating back to 1996 that defines marriage between one male and one female. Five years ago, Arizona voters approved adding the language of that law to the state’s constitution.
The state bill and Bisbee’s proposed ordinance do not mention same-sex marriage but do raise the issue of equality.
“It is in the best interest of the city of Bisbee to refuse to continue to remain silent on this issue, in the face of discriminatory practices that are inconsistent with the principles upon which our country was founded,” the ordinance states.
It’s unclear whether state officials will challenge Bisbee’s proposed ordinance if it passes a final vote.
Although the Arizona Constitution defines a marriage between a man and a woman, it doesn’t appear to forbid same-sex civil unions, said Jack Tweedie, director of children and families program at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Still, it’s uncertain whether Bisbee officials have the authority to sanction such civil unions, Tweedie said.
“At some point we may be told that we can no longer do this,” Zavala Badal said.
A civil union certificate would allow a slew of city benefits for an unwed couple, such as disability or compensation for the partners of city workers and even family discounts at the local pool. Currently, partners don’t qualify.
As it stands now, there are several important life decisions that are not available to unwed partners, Zavala Badal said. For instance, partners cannot give authorization as to where their loved one should be buried in the city’s cemetery. Only family members can make that decision.Councilman Gene Connors introduced the ordinance after the idea came up in conversation with someone else a month ago. “From her point of view, it would bring people to town and generate revenue," Connors said.
He agreed about the possible economic reward, but as the vote came closer, Conners said, the potential revenue didn't matter that much.
“It just absolutely had to happen … for the right reasons,” Connors said. He represents a neighborhood known as Old Bisbee, which has a substantial gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community."We [in Arizona] get a lot of bad press,” Connors said. “But Bisbee is a really a special town and it’s pretty wonderful to be here.”