A small artist settlement in southern Arizona became the conservative state’s first city to allow civil unions between same-sex couples, voting in a new ordinance and defying a threat from Atty. Gen. Tom Horne, who promised to take legal action if the measure passed.
Late Tuesday night, City Council members voted 5-2 to allow what gay marriage supporters see as the next best thing, adding a section to its city charter that clears the way for civil unions in their town of about 5,600 residents.
Supporters and opponents of the measure packed the council chambers, lining up to speak their piece during a five-hour meeting.
The move comes as the U.S. Supreme Court weighs the issue of same-sex marriage and follows several national polls that show more than half of Americans support gay marriage.
The Bisbee ordinance, which allows for a form of union regardless of the sexual orientation of the couple, would be effective only within Bisbee and would impact certain benefits and policies within the city itself.
Bisbee’s proposal borrows language from a civil union bill proposed in the state Legislature -- a bill likely to languish in committees. Arizona has a bill dating to 1996 that defines marriage as being between one male and one female. Five years ago, Arizona voters approved adding the language to the state’s constitution.
“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.
Before Tuesday’s vote, Horne issued a letter to the City Council stating that the ordinance, if passed, would be unconstitutional. He threatened to initiate legal action to stop it.
“The ordinance seeks to change seven separate state statutes within the boundaries of the city, dealing with issues such as community property, inheritance of property, and appointment of personal representation,” Horne said in a written statement. “The only proper way to change a statute is through the legislature… .”
While the Arizona constitution defines a marriage as being between a man and a woman, it doesn’t appear to forbid a civil union, said Jack Tweedie, director of children and families program at the National Conference of State Legislatures in an earlier interview.
It’s uncertain, however, whether Bisbee officials have the authority to create a whole new relationship because it seems to have never been done before, Tweedie added.
Supporters of the current state bill and Bisbee’s proposed ordinance believe the language doesn’t violate the state constitution and its restrictions on marriage because the words same-sex marriage are not used.
Bisbee Mayor Adriana Zavala Badal had acknowledged that the ordinance would likely be challenged after the first reading of the ordinance two weeks ago. In addition, she said the benefits governed by the state and given to married couples would remain inaccessible to people joined by civil union in Bisbee. Appointment of guardianship and conservatorship are some examples, she said.
Still, a civil union certificate would carry several city benefits for an unwed couple. Those would include disability or compensation for the partners of city workers, land-use issues 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 currently cannot give authorization as to where their loved one should be buried in the city’s cemetery. Only family members can make that decision.