The scene: two men stand before a justice of the peace or a minister. It is a civil-union ceremony, and they have said their “I do's” and exchanged rings. The officiant turns to the couple.
“I now pronounce you ...”
Pronounce you what?
Language, or terminology, is but one of the details facing JPs, town clerks and couples themselves as Oct. 1 draws near. Saturday marks the day when a new state law allowing same-sex civil unions takes effect.
“We have no idea what we're going to proclaim the couples,” said Saul Haffner of Westport, president of the organization Justices of the Peace of the United States. The organization, founded by Haffner, is based in Connecticut.
Haffner suggested “partners in life,” but said the term will likely depend on what each couple chooses.
In many ways, the process for a couple planning a civil union is no different than that for a man and woman planning to marry. They go to town hall, fill out similar paperwork and proceed with whatever arrangements they want for the ceremony and, perhaps, a reception.
But the fact that same-sex couples will be allowed to do so makes the process far from ordinary. Connecticut is only the second state in the country to approve civil unions. Vermont passed its civil union law in 2000 after a constitutional challenge. A similar court action led to the legalization of same-sex marriages in Massachusetts in 2003.
On Oct. 1, history will be made in Connecticut.
“We, of course, would like to be first in line,” said Ann Meitzen of Waterford, who, with her partner, Joanne Pedersen, expects to go to the Waterford Town Hall to get a civil union license. The couple plans to take along the justice of the peace who performed their commitment ceremony in August 2004 so they can do everything “right on the spot.”
Waterford Town Hall is not open Oct. 1, which is a Saturday, so Meitzen, 55, and Pedersen, 52, plan to go on Monday, Oct. 3. For them, it is important to have their civil union in the town where they live.
For Scott and Christopher Emmerson-Pace, the historic weight of the date is important. The Monroe couple legally changed their names five years ago, combining their last names, and they have already done whatever legal work they can to boost their rights.
So on Saturday, the two will drive about 45 minutes to Kent, because it is the closest town hall open on Oct. 1.
“For us it's more of a symbolic thing and being part of history, more than someone who's 18 years old and only been together a year,” said Christopher Emmerson-Pace, who said the couple has been together almost 14 years. “We feel we have a different sense of what this means. ... For us, we had already made a commitment to each other, and this is more of a symbolic thing for us.”
Kent Town Hall is opening specially from 9 a.m. until noon that day, and the couple wants to go from there to the Kent Falls State Park for their civil union ceremony at 2 p.m. They're planning a reception back at their house later in the day.
“We're sort of locked into having to go where there would be a town hall open,” said Christopher, a case manager at a child guidance clinic in Stamford. “We're not in any way disappointed about that, but we would have been happy to do everything in our back yard.”
Most town halls in the state are not open on Saturdays and are not planning to open Oct. 1. So far, none of the town halls in southeastern Connecticut are planning to open on Oct. 1.
Joe Camposeo, first vice president of the Connecticut Town Clerks Association, said, “We're treating it in Manchester, and I suspect most other places, that this is core business to us. I've had calls asking if we're going to be open on Saturday. We're not. It's core business.”
Camposeo added that he is treating it the same as another new law going into effect Oct. 1, one that significantly increases the recording fees for land records.
“We're not staying open until midnight (Friday) so people can come in and get their recordings in to avoid paying their (extra) $30,” he said.
On Sept. 1, the registrar of vital records at the state Department of Public Health sent a letter to town and city clerks to update them on how to process the new licenses.
According to that letter from Elizabeth Frugale, the new form is called a “Civil Union License and Certificate” and is “nearly identical” to the marriage license.
There are a couple of notable differences, however, among them a question about whether either person has ever been involved in a heterosexual relationship. Marriage license forms ask if either person has been married before and how many times.
“It's just for statistical purposes,” said Frugale, adding that the law bars people from being in more than one civil union or marriage. “If they had been in a marriage, we wanted to be sure of how that marriage ended.”
The civil union license also asks for the sex of the individuals, Frugale said, whereas on a marriage license, “it's assumed the bride is female and the groom is male.”
For the new same-sex union license forms, people are referred to as “Party 1” and “Party 2.”
“I wonder which one I would be,” said Meitzen, joking that, “I guess since my name is Ann, I'll be Party 1.
“It's so interesting, because the powers that be were very clear that marriage is only between a man and a woman,” said Meitzen, who is a regional manager for Connecticut Community Care, Inc., a non-profit that helps older adults and the disabled to remain independent. “I don't know, why couldn't they say ‘Spouse 1' and ‘Spouse 2?' Then it looks too much like a wedding.”
The public health department will administer the new licenses, which are considered an addition to the state's vital records that include marriages, births and deaths. Civil unions will be recorded and indexed separately.
Camposeo said the information on vital records is a “functional record” for many federal agencies. For example, information on birth records and fetal death records is transferred to the Centers for Disease Control.
No one under 18 years old can participate in a civil union, unlike a marriage, when a person under 18 can be married with parental consent or approval from a probate court judge.
Anyone eligible to perform a marriage ceremony has the authority to perform a civil union ceremony. However, those officiants can refuse to join two people in a civil union and are not subject to fines or penalties. According to the public health department, marriage statutes are silent about the liability of those who refuse to perform a marriage.
In East Lyme, Town Clerk Esther Williams said she sent a letter in the spring informing the town's justices of the peace about the new law and asking whether they want to perform civil unions. She is compiling a list that she can hand out.
Of the 43 JPs in town who perform marriages, 14 responded so far and said they would also perform civil unions.
Haffner, the JP organization's president, said its Web site has a listing of justices who will perform civil unions.
Haffner thinks it's unlikely that priests, ministers and rabbis are going to be performing many civil union ceremonies. “It's going to fall on the justices of the peace,” he said.
Other than learning some new language, Haffner added, he didn't expect things to change much for justices.
“It only provides a new market for our services, and it could be significant,” he said. The 2000 Census reported 7,400 same-sex couples in Connecticut, according to the Associated Press.
The Emmerson-Paces said they are referring to Oct. 1 as their wedding.
A Niantic couple – two grandmothers who are planning a civil union but did not want to be identified – said the invitations to their civil union ceremony refer to a “holy union.”
Of her upcoming ceremony, Meitzen said, “We're getting CU'd.”
Elise Klein, who founded the non-profit Teachers Against Prejudice, conducts workshops at teachers' conferences on prejudice and bias. She was scheduled to run a “sensitivity workshop” at a conference for justices of the peace this weekend. JPs met Saturday in Middletown.
“Our intention might not be to hurt or offend somebody...” she said of the language people use. “And sometimes we don't know what the right words are.”
Klein abides by the approach that “there are no stupid questions.”
“When in doubt, politely of course, ask,” she said. “Most of the time, anyone who's in a ‘group' or a ‘category,' for lack of a better word, already knows those questions are there. They already know the stereotypes. ... It's the same for race, religion, anything.”
Haffner said the Unitarian Church of Boston has a handout with five gender-free services.
The Rev. Barbara Libby, interim pastor at Niantic Community Church, said civil union ceremonies there will stress Christian themes but will use vows and language chosen by the couples.
“I'm going to do whatever the couple wants me to do, because that's what I do now,” said Libby, who plans to officiate at a civil union ceremony in the church Oct. 22.
Libby said she sends to all couples a wedding booklet that gives them a variety of options, and she will continue to use that.
“I'm open to developing new liturgies with folks if that would be useful,” she said. “It would still be within the context of a Christian worship.”
Love Makes a Family Connecticut, a statewide coalition of organizations and individuals working for equal marriage rights for same-sex couples in Connecticut, has hosted “Civil Unions 101” forums throughout the summer.
Carol Buckheit, director of special projects for the organization, said more than 400 people attended the forums, which dealt with tax issues and other considerations for couples thinking of entering into civil unions.
For many same-sex couples, civil unions are only a step toward the right to marry. GLAD, or Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, represented six plaintiffs in filing a lawsuit in New Haven Superior Court last year seeking marriage equality for same-sex couples. The organization said that oral arguments will begin in early 2006.
GLAD on Tuesday also criticized the attorney general's opinion on civil unions, which said out-of-state civil unions would be recognized in Connecticut but out-of-state same-sex marriages would not. Massachusetts is the only state that currently allows same-sex marriages.
Meitzen said she and Pedersen hope to add their marriage to the list of anniversaries they celebrate. Chief among those is the day they met, Dec. 22, followed by their commitment ceremony, Aug. 14.
October 3 will follow. Then, maybe one day, a wedding.
“You never know,” Meitzen said. “You're always hopeful. Joanne and I have really made the promise to each other that, as every gradual write-in or increase is afforded us, we'll take advantage of it. But who knows how many years until we have a wedding ceremony.”
The new law can be viewed on the General Assembly's Web site at www.cga.ct.gov/2005/act/Pa/2005PA-00010-R00SB-00963-PA.htm
Justices of the Peace of the United States: www.jpus.org