HARTFORD, Conn – Connecticut joins Vermont on Saturday as the only states offering same-sex civil unions, but the day may pass with only a few raised glasses of champagne as the first gay couples exchange vows.
Because Oct. 1 falls on a Saturday, only a handful of town clerks' offices plan to be open. Gay rights activists know of some planned ceremonies that day — including one officiated by Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy (search), who's running for governor — but don't know how many couples will race to apply for civil unions.
"Saturday is going to be a landmark day in the civil rights movement in Connecticut," said state Sen. Andrew McDonald (search), D-Stamford, one of a handful of openly gay legislators in Connecticut's General Assembly.
But the law is also creating confusion with some employers who will be required to extend health benefits to same-sex couples.
"I think employers are going to start getting requests (for benefits) as soon as Monday. And they're not prepared," said Bruce Barth, an employee benefits attorney at Robinson and Cole in Hartford.
Connecticut's law passed in April, making it the first state to recognize same-sex unions without court intervention. Laws in Vermont and Massachusetts, which allows gay couples to marry, were created as a result of legal action. In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) followed through on his promise Thursday to veto a bill to legalize same-sex marriage.
Connecticut will recognize Vermont's civil unions but officials are still researching other states' domestic partnership laws and civil unions granted in foreign countries. But it will not recognize same-sex marriages because its law specifies that marriage is between a man and a woman, a distinction that angers some couples.
Town clerks and justices of the peace spent the past few weeks learning the ins and outs of civil unions. The justices, who are not required to perform civil unions, have been encouraged to conclude civil union ceremonies by pronouncing couples "partners in life" rather than husband and wife. They were also reminded that heterosexual couples aren't eligible for civil unions.
The 2000 U.S. Census found about 7,400 same-sex couples in Connecticut, but there's no way to know how many might seek civil unions.
Town clerks say they'll be prepared for whoever shows up.
"We're ready," said Sandra Hutton, president of the Connecticut Town Clerk's Association. "We have the proper documentation. We won't have any problems at all."
Civil unions will give same-sex couples the same legal protections that married couples enjoy, including spousal health care benefits. However, they will not be subject to any of the federal laws pertaining to married couples because the federal government defines a spouse as someone of the opposite gender.
Experts said the business community may face the biggest adjustment as Connecticut's law takes effect, especially when state and federal laws overlap.
Bonnie Stewart, vice president and counsel for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said she believes civil unions won't be as confusing as some fear. Employers should just follow the rule that, "if you offer it to married couples, yes, now you have to offer it to a civil union couple," she said.
But health insurance for civil partners will be taxed by the federal government as income because couples are not considered married under federal law. That means a civil union partner's taxable income for state purposes will be different from the taxable income reported on their W-2 form.
"There is certainly a level of complexity that benefit administrators are going to have to deal with," said Michael Dimenstein, director of compensation and benefits for the Yale-New Haven Health System.
Opponents are lobbying for a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage when the General Assembly goes back into session next year. A rally is scheduled Saturday.
Meanwhile, arguments are scheduled for January in a lawsuit brought by eight same-sex Connecticut couples who want to force the state to allow them full marriage rights.
But for couples like Chris and Scott Emmerson-Pace, Saturday will be a day of celebration. The Monroe couple plans to apply for their license in Kent and have their ceremony that day before hosting a reception in their home.
"We've been waiting 14 years, so we didn't want to wait any longer," said Chris Emmerson-Pace, 36, a teacher. "We also wanted to do it right on Oct. 1 just to send the message to the state that we respect what they're doing."