BISBEE — Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne will file a lawsuit challenging Bisbee’s new civil union ordinance, his office confirmed Wednesday. There was no timeline yet available for when the lawsuit may come.
Horne’s decision comes hours after the small southeastern Arizona city of Bisbee ignored vociferous opposition and threats of lawsuits and legalized civil unions for same-sex couples Tuesday night. It was an historic council vote that turned into a political circus, as nearly 100 people packed the chambers in both opposition and support.
The City Council pushed aside legal warnings from the state’s attorney general and a conservative advocacy group and voted 5-2 to become first city in the state to offer civil-union certificates for all couples that would extend to same-sex partners some of the same rights as married couples within the Bisbee boundaries.
The ordinance, which goes into effect in 30 days, would cover joint property ownership, property inheritance, guardianship and adoption rights.
Two weeks ago, the council gave unanimous approval to the ordinance in a preliminary vote few knew was happening. A handful of locals spoke in support. There was no opposition.
Tuesday was an entirely different story. For three hours, the seven-member council, which was caught off-guard by the fervor over the proposal, listened as one after another, impassioned opponents and supporters voiced their opinions. Many spoke against the ordinance, some decrying the move as being against “God’s law.”
City Attorney John MacKinnon defended the move, saying the civil-union ordinance “does not change state laws” and that the state had no legal standing to fight it.
Arizona voters in 2008 approved a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. However, two years earlier, voters rejected a broader version that would have barred the state and local governments from creating or recognizing “a legal status for unmarried persons that is similar to marriage.”
Tuesday night’s council meeting in the mining city that reinvented itself as an artist community came just a week after national attention was focused on the highly charged issue when the U.S. Supreme Court took up two lawsuits challenging state and federal restrictions on same-sex marriage.
And just hours before the meeting, Horne, at the urging of state lawmakers from Cochise County, sent a letter warning Bisbee that his office would take legal action against the city if council members approved the ordinance.
Horne said Bisbee does not have the authority to offer civil unions and that “the impact goes beyond (city) boundaries.”
MacKinnon, referring to Horne and the state, said: “They chose to interpret it broadly. We believe this was a desire to make a political statement.”
MacKinnon said he was proud to bring the issue to the council. “I think for too long many of us have been silent while we have witnessed discrimination against some in this community,” he said. “It’s time to stand up.”
MacKinnon said he does not believe Horne or the conservative Center for Arizona Policy has a legal argument, adding that he would defend any lawsuits at no cost to the city. Another local attorney who attended the meeting said she would also help defend the ordinance for free.
“We are not trying to change the laws of Arizona,” he said. “In a limited capacity, the city of Bisbee is able to act and will do what it can within the areas that city controls.”
He said the civil union would enable city employees to seek benefits for partners and be recognized in other areas the city controls.
“We are not doing what Attorney General Tom Horne accuses us of,” he said. “This is limited action within the scope of the city’s jurisdiction. I’m not seeing an issue that really poses a threat to Arizona or anything the attorney general has authority over.”
Resident Gayle Schasteen said many townsfolk had been unaware the council was considering the move, which she said was “against God’s law.”
Alison Williams of Bisbee, who supported the proposal, said: “This is not about God. This is about equality. This is about the law.”
Hywel Logan, 38, who owns the Teeny Tiny Toy Store in Bisbee, didn’t attend the first council meeting on the ordinance but said the debate — and negative rhetoric — had heightened in recent days and he felt he had to attend Tuesday night in support of civil unions.
As word spread that a strong opposition was organizing, Logan and other business owners in the historic district began spreading the word and encouraging supporters to show up early, and in force.
“It seems ridiculous that I have to defend my relationship,” said Logan, who is gay.
Tom Holley, pastor of Bisbee’s Assembly of God church, who attended the meeting with several members of his congregation to oppose the ordinance, accused the council of using tax dollars to push personal agendas in Bisbee and across Arizona.
“I’m not against these people. I’m against what they stand for, what they are doing,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Horne sent an official letter of possible legal action against Bisbee, saying the proposal attempts to change state law on issues such as community property that only the state can change.
“The ordinance seeks to change seven separate State statutes within the boundaries of the city, dealing with issues such as community property, inheritance of property, and appointment of personal representatives,” Horne said in a news release. “The only proper way to change a statute is through the Legislature, not through actions of the City Council … I emphasize that I am not expressing any opinion on the policy of the ordinance. My job is to enforce the laws that exist and I am obligated to respond to complaints from state legislators.”
Three Republican state lawmakers from southern Arizona — Sen. Gail Griffin of Hereford, and Reps. David Gowan and David Stevens of Sierra Vista — complained to his office, Horne said.
The Center for Arizona Policy sent city officials a similar letter Monday, threatening to sue, which they said would bankrupt the city.
Republic reporter Lindsey Collom and the Associated Press contributed.