"We’re about halfway through this year’s session of the Indiana General Assembly, and a quick glance at the legislative docket proves there aren’t a lot of new ideas or initiatives floating around the Statehouse in 2007. While talk of property tax reform and privatization of state services dominates in some circles, human rights issues of the most basic type are also at stake.

Same-sex marriage

SJR 7, the proposed amendment to the Indiana Constitution that bans same-sex marriages in the state and prohibits the “rights of marriage” from being conferred to unmarried persons, is nearing its final hurdle in the General Assembly. Having passed the House and Senate two years ago, it needs to pass both chambers again this session in order to be put on the ballot in 2008 as a question to voters.

Last week, the amendment passed the Senate by a vote of 39-10, with all Republicans voting in favor. The Democrats who voted against the amendment were Anita Bowser (Michigan City), Jean Breaux (Indianapolis), John Broden (South Bend), Sue Errington (Muncie), Glenn Howard (Indianapolis), Tim Lanane (Anderson), Earline Rogers (Gary), Vi Simpson (Elletsville), Connie Snipes (New Albany) and Karen Tallian (Portage). The amendment must now be voted on in the House of Representatives.

If ratified, according to opponents of the amendment, unmarried couples could lose every right or protection available to their families, touching nearly every facet of modern life, from health care to domestic partnership benefits to child and elder care. In stripping away these important rights, unmarried couples and their families would be vulnerable to future discrimination without legal recourse, severely limiting the opportunity for those of limited means to fight for their rights.

A rally held at the Statehouse earlier this week brought out several hundred opponents to SJR 7. “We are united together, on behalf of all Hoosiers, in standing up against SJR 7,” said Randy Studt, chairman, Indiana Equality. “Despite this blatant attempt to discriminate, we continue to make great strides in fighting for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families in Indiana.”

Candace Gingrich, an author and longtime advocate for the Human Rights Campaign, as well as the half-sister of conservative guru Newt Gingrich, was also a speaker at the rally.

“Across our country, we have seen significant repercussions when state Constitutions are amended,” Gingrich said. “Public employees in Michigan stand to lose their domestic partner benefits while in Ohio, several trial courts have ruled that the state’s amendment made it unconstitutional to pursue domestic violence charges against unmarried people, regardless of their gender. Here in Indiana, all unmarried couples could be subjected to similar incidents of discrimination if SJR 7 becomes law.”

Domestic violence

Serious repercussions from legislation similar to SJR 7 have already been seen in Michigan, Utah and Ohio where the passage of a constitutional amendment resulted in the legal system’s inability to protect victims of domestic violence. In Michigan, one prosecutor has refused to issue protective orders because, in his words, “domestic violence laws are for wife-beaters, not girlfriend-beaters.” This past month, a Michigan judge upheld a ruling that denies domestic violence laws from being applied in the cases where the victim and abuser are not married.

Because Utah’s amendment states that no domestic status or union other than the legal union of one man and one woman has legal sanction or validity, protective orders in the context of an unmarried couple cannot be enforced. And in Ohio, where domestic violence law applies only to a person “living as a spouse,” the new constitutional amendment prohibits Ohio from recognizing a spouse outside the context of a legal union between one man and one woman.

In an effort to negate these concerns in Indiana, the Senate Rules Committee has taken SB 65, previously a “vehicle bill,” and changed the bill to amend the definition of domestic battery to provide that the offense is committed if the prohibited behavior results in the bodily injury of a family or household member of the person engaging in the behavior.

The bill, authored by Sen. Brandt Hershman, who also authored SJR 7, is a clumsy attempt to negate the criticism of SJR 7’s probable effects on Indiana’s domestic violence laws. There is little belief that the amendment will be passed.

Health benefits

Domestic partnership health benefits are also at stake if SJR 7 passes. Kentucky has a similar constitutional amendment already on the books and this year that state’s Legislature is well on its way to approving a statute which prohibits state universities from offering domestic partner benefits. The legislation was launched after the University of Louisville became the first public university in that state to announce it planned to offer domestic partner benefits.

During the recent Senate debate on SJR 7 here in Indiana, Hershman insisted that the claims that the amendment would strike down domestic partner benefits, such as those offered by Purdue University in his own district, were untrue. Hershman told the Lafayette Journal & Courier, “I have consulted constitutional scholars and the attorney general. And these assertions are simply false.”

Even if Hershman does not intend for SJR 7 to restrict health care benefits, he has tried to cut off domestic partnership benefits in the past. In 2003, Hershman introduced legislation to cut off state funding to Purdue University and other state educational institutions that offered domestic partner benefits to employees with same-sex partners. The specific text of the amendment filed in April of 2003 reads:

Sec. 1.5. (a) A state educational institution (as defined in IC 20-12-0.5-1) that provides group coverage for health care services for the state educational institution’s employees shall provide coverage for only the: (1) employee; (2) individual to whom the employee is married under IC 31-11-1-1 ; and (3) employee’s dependent: (A) child; and (B) stepchild; under the employee’s coverage.

(b) A state educational institution that provides coverage for health care services for an individual other than the individuals described in subsection (a) is not eligible for public funding related to the group coverage.