A groundbreaking civil union ordinance in the southern Arizona city of Bisbee will lose much of its punch after Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne on Monday said he's reached an agreement in principal on changes that will remove his opposition and a threat to sue to block it from taking effect.
Horne met with lawyers representing Bisbee from a Phoenix firm and a national group that seeks full legal rights for gay, lesbian and transgender people and they agreed to change language Horne believed conflicted with state law.
Horne and Jennifer Pizer of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund say Bisbee will rewrite a section of the ordinance to make it clear that it doesn't confer rights under state laws.
There's disagreement as to whether the original version did that, but the city put it on hold early this month after Horne threatened to sue.
The ordinance mentioned seven state laws, including the right to inherit and share community property, and said they applied to each Bisbee resident who registers a civil union. Those rights can be agreed to under state law through a contract, but Horne said the ordinance could fool people into thinking they received them just by registering.
"If the ordinance were put into effect as written, it could mislead people, because they can confer inheritance by wills, they can enter into contracts with each other which are binding under current law, and our fear was people might refrain from doing that thinking they are covered by civil unions," Horne said.
Bisbee's intent was to make it easier for people in same-sex relationships to take advantage of city benefits and current state contract laws, said Pizer, senior counsel for Lambda. The idea was to create a public record about their wishes in health care, property rights and other legal arrangements.
"It makes it easier for institutions or third parties to understand that those arrangements have been made and to respect the wishes of that family," Pizer said.
Horne said the ordinance violated parts of a 2008 voter-approved state constitutional ban on same-sex marriages and tried to change seven state laws. Pizer disagreed.
Bisbee's actions made it the first Arizona city to legalize civil unions for same-sex couples, giving the couples the rights now held by married couples. The ordinance said the city wants to end "discriminatory practices against members of the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender community" so that couples could have lasting and meaningful relationships regardless of sexual orientation.
The changes announced Monday mean that it will be less sweeping, but it still is a new law that sends a loud message, Pizer said.
Horne insisted the ordinance didn't move into same-sex marriage, which is prohibited.
"This is not marriage," Horne said. "This is simply a way of publically recording and acknowledging that people have entered into private agreements that they have a right to enter into now. So it's a matter really of symbolic rather than substantive significance."
Bisbee officials have said they expect a new version of the ordinance that changes language Horne found legally suspect by June.