At time of death, we can be kinder to same-sex couples.
With Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto of the "Final Wishes" bill, cold conservatism evidently trumped compassionate conservatism for a GOP governor aspiring to be the nation's next chief executive.
The bill would have accorded same-sex couples the same rights as their married counterparts in determining what happens with the remains of a deceased partner. It would also have given domestic partners the right to sue in wrongful death cases.
"Currently a person can, by executing a will, designate who shall be empowered to control final disposition of his or her remains," Pawlenty wrote in his letter explaining his veto. "This bill therefore addresses a nonexistent problem."
That's not the reality, say some who have lived through the death of a partner, only to face technical entanglements that kept them from carrying out their final wishes.
"We had done what we thought was everything we could possibly do," said Tim Reardon of Golden Valley, recalling the legal preparations he and his partner Eric Mann made before Mann's death in 2006. "The myth is that you can legally take care of all that stuff."
Reardon's inability to carry out Mann's wishes, until his partner's understanding parents intervened, is an example of why the bill is needed. "To have to hear, after your partner is dead and you're absolutely physically and emotionally spent, somebody say, 'I'm sorry, your relationship is not recognized,' it strikes this deep kind of disbelief. It's just such a crazy violation of our rights, our dignity, of our respect."
It's heartless to put our fellow citizens through such heartache. And it's unfair to make same-sex couples hire attorneys to get the same rights as married couples.
The legislation was wrongly sidetracked by the gay marriage debate. "These are very, very narrow bills. These are not about broad-based domestic partner benefits, and they are certainly not marriage-equality bills," said Ann Kaner-Roth, executive director of Project 515, an organization dedicated to giving same-sex couples and their families equal rights under Minnesota law.
The bill's House author, Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, agreed. "Those who are arguing that this is a slippery slope toward marriage are making an argument that is purely conjecture," she said.
Pawlenty had a different interpretation. He ended his veto letter this way: "Marriage -- defined as between a man and a woman -- should remain elevated in our society at a special level, as it traditionally has been. I oppose efforts to treat domestic relationships as the equivalent of traditional marriage.''
Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, who hopes to succeed Pawlenty, also voted no, as did all but one of his House colleagues and all but one Senate Republican. For a party whose election year buzzwords include "freedom" and "liberty," the heavy hand of government making what is often life's darkest hour even more difficult is cynically incongruent.
Pawlenty and the GOP ought to catch up with the business community. The vast majority of Minnesota's Fortune 500 corporations and many other businesses in the state already offer domestic partner benefits.
If that doesn't convince them, maybe the GOP should catch up with its constituents. Project 515 polling from 2006 indicated that 70 percent of Minnesotans agreed that "gays and lesbians should have the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else." Rapidly evolving social attitudes have most likely moved this number even higher.
"People in Minnesota are changing on this issue, and the politics haven't caught up with the changing views," Murphy said.
Fortunately, lawmakers will have another chance to catch up and make a more compassionate choice during the next legislative session.
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