Arnold Schwarzenegger should ensure basic human rights to all Californians by signing The Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, granting full marriage equality for same-sex couples, Human Rights Watch has urged in a letter to the governor.

Schwarzenegger has previously vetoed a similar bill which was passed by California’s legislature in 2005.

“Arnold Schwarzenegger has been given one of the rarest things in life: a second chance to do the right thing,” said Boris Dittrich, advocacy director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “Twice, California legislators have supported the human rights of lesbian and gay couples, and now the governor should do the same.”

On September 7, by a vote of 22-15, the California State Senate approved The Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, extending civil marriage to lesbian and gay couples. The legislature’s lower house, the State Assembly, had passed the Act earlier this year by a vote of 42-34. The governor has until October 14 to sign or veto the bill.

The California bill would define marriage in gender-neutral terms as a union between two people. It would extend the same state protections of marriage to same-sex couples as to heterosexual ones. Religious groups could continue to refuse to perform a marriage ceremony if their beliefs forbid it.

“Countries from the Netherlands to South Africa have recognised that marriage should include, not exclude,” said Dittrich, who as a member of the Dutch parliament sponsored the first successful legislation in the world extending marriage to same-sex couples. “The US government should also see that the politics of prejudice destroys families.”

At the national level, Belgium, Canada and Spain have also passed laws opening marriage rights to lesbian and gay couples.

The California bill would be an important step toward ending the discrimination and damaging burdens that the lack of access to marriage imposes on same-sex partners, Human Rights Watch said.

Without marriage, such couples may be denied shared health or employment benefits, protections against domestic violence, inheritance rights, the right to raise a child together, the right to make medical decisions for a sick partner or a partner’s child, and rights to equal tax benefits and joint insurance policies.

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