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In a break from its past practice of avoiding national issues, the Healdsburg City Council is siding with advocates for same-sex marriage in a high-profile U.S. Supreme Court case.

After a spirited discussion, the council this week agreed to join a lawsuit challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which recognizes only marriage between a man and woman.

Councilman Gary Plass was hesitant for the council to take a stand, describing it as "an issue we have no control on, or ability to do anything but make a symbolic gesture."

He said previous councils have been "careful not to get bogged down in issues beyond our scope," and stray from the jobs they were elected to do.

"This isn't a federal issue, a state issue or even a political issue. It's a human rights issue," countered Councilman Shaun McCaffery.

He said typically "the city doesn't chime in on things so great and potentially out of their sphere. But this is in our sphere and I don't think we'll get bogged down."

Siding with McCaffery were Mayor Susan Jones and Councilman Tom Chambers. Councilman Jim Wood was absent.

Jones, who is married to her female partner, said "we need to send a message -- people are watching this. Cities across the nation are paying attention and it is important."

Plass said he did not disagree with those challenging the Defense of Marriage Act, just that it wasn't something the City Council should wade into.

As an "amicus," or friend of the court, Healdsburg at at no financial cost is joining hundreds of companies, individuals and some cities, including four in California -- Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Monica and West Hollywood -- seeking to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.

The act was signed into law in 1996 by then President Clinton, who has since advocated for its repeal.

The Obama administration concluded in 2011 that parts of the act were unconstitutional and although it would continue to enforce it, would not defend it in court.

House Republicans have authorized the legal funding to defend the federal ban on recognizing gay marriage.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case, United States vs. Edith Windsor, next month. It involves a woman who is challenging the federal inheritance taxes she was subject to when her longtime female spouse died, taxes she would not have had to pay if she were married to a man.

In Healdsburg, the issue was brought to the council by Puma Springs Vineyard owners Tony Crabb and Barbara Grasseschi, who said they have worked to support gay rights.

Crabb noted there are more than 1,000 federal statutory benefits in which marital status is contingent on receiving benefits, including whether Social Security survivors' benefits.

"It's simply a matter of making sure everyone is treated equally under the law and we don't enshrine discrimination," he said. "It's the civil rights issue of our time."

Mayor Jones said the issue affects her personally. She and her spouse have to file separate tax returns federally and a joint return to the state.

"It's a bookkeeping nightmare," she said.

Twelve states and the District of Columbia authorize the marriage of same sex couples, or to some degree recognize them when performed in other states.

California recognizes same sex marriages performed in the state between June 16 to Nov 4, 2008, or were performed outside California before Nov. 5, 2008.

The cutoff is when California voters approved Proposition 8 a constitutional amendment that only recognizes marriage between a man and woman. Lower courts overturned Prop. 8 but the issue also is set to go this year before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Plass warned his colleagues that by joining the lawsuit it would be opening the door to a variety of other issues brought by a gamut of political parties on the left and the right. He said it might be gun rights, nuclear free zones, or issues favored by the tea party and John Birch Society.

"We're going to have to spend hours and hours taking away from what people in this community elected us to do," he said.

However, he reluctantly voted in favor of the move to join the lawsuit when it became obvious his colleagues would do so..

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