Arizona town approves same-sex civil unions; Ariz. AG threatens legal action

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

BISBEE, Ariz -- In a 5-2 vote, the Bisbee City Council approved an ordinance for civil unions to be recognized under the City's jurisdiction. The vote makes Bisbee the first city in Arizona to legalize civil unions.

The ordinance said the city of about 5,600 people 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 vote came after three full hours of public comment from Bisbee residents and others in the area. More than 60 people signed up to speak, and the mayor allowed three minutes of  for each comment.

The first hour of comment came from many members of Bisbee's religious communities. Many cited Biblical reasons for their opposition of civil unions. Several feared that the ordinance would hurt the town's ability to draw tourists, and some felt that the ordinance paved the way for gay marriage and other non-traditional relationships.

"'I'm a single person who loves my cat,'" said Terri Nuti, using this analogy to describe her feelings on the ordinance. "'I love her more than anything in the world, and I want to protect her rights after I'm gone.' By passing this law, are we really that far away?"

"It is an abomination against God's law and what I personally believe. God defines marriage as between one man and one woman," said Larry Drybread.

But not long after, the tide turned, and every person called to the podium spoke in support of legalizing civil unions. including a father and his daughter who call Bisbee home.

"It's simple," said Abby Hotel. "Please let me live in a community where everyone is treated equally."

"We just do what is right," said her father, Drew. "...and if it's not right, we change that."

It seemed clear from the council members that many had their minds made up on how they would vote before Tuesday night's meeting and that the long public commentary didn't do much to further sway their decision. Councilman David Smith told us why he was voting for the ordinance.

"Really, in my opinion, this is a human rights issue. Even with my background, Marine Corps, police officer, Republican...all of those things, I fully believe this is a humanity issue."

Councilwoman Anna Cline voted no, and she described the last week as emotional. She said that while she has friends and colleagues who are gay and support the measure, she took the feedback from her constituents as her directive. She said their vote was overwhelmingly no.

Before the vote, Attorney General Tom Horne sent a letter to Bisbee City Hall warning them not to pass civil unions, saying the city does not have the legal authority to give same sex couples the benefits listed in the ordinance. He said the measure attempts to change state law on things such as community property. Only the state can change that law, he said.

"All the towns, big and small, have to follow state law," Horne said before the vote. "I'm the chief law-enforcement officer. It's my job to see to it that they all follow state law. So, that's all I'm doing. I'm not firing any guns at them. I'm simply saying if you violate state law, it's my duty to go to court to put a stop to it."

City Attorney John MacKinnon said he was disappointed in Horne's letter. He says he feels the city is acting within its jurisdiction and there will not be support for a suit against the City of Bisbee.

Residents of Bisbee will be able to obtain a civil union certificate in 30 days. The cost will be the same as marriage license in Cochise County -- $76.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.