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Untraditional Families Closer to Getting Benefits : Government: Council paves way for gay and lesbian couples, among others, to receive health insurance.


LONG BEACH — The City Council has approved a "statement on family" that could open the way for unmarried couples, including gay and lesbian partners, to receive benefits that city government reserves for traditional families.

The statement, approved Tuesday on a 6-3 vote, makes no immediate changes. But proponents said they hope that the council will follow it with new policies and ordinances to benefit non-traditional households.

One of the possibilities most often mentioned in the council hearing, where about 50 people testified, was extending health coverage and other employee benefits to the partners of unmarried city workers.

A standing-room-only crowd greeted the council action with applause and moans.

About half of those testifying urged the council to stick by the U.S. Census definition of a family: a household with two or more persons related by blood, marriage or adoption.

The remainder urged the council to recognize non-traditional families, which are becoming more common.

The statement approved by the council does not define a family in terms of blood or legal relationship. Instead, the statement identifies family functions--such as providing physical and emotional support--encompassing non-traditional households.

"The public is best-served when all families are strong enough to provide for themselves," said Councilman Alan S. Lowenthal, who voted for the statement. "When we strengthen our families, we strengthen the fabric that binds us together."

Vice Mayor Jeffrey A. Kellogg said he voted against the statement because it could expose Long Beach to lawsuits if the city does not immediately extend equal benefits to non-traditional households.

Councilmen Les Robbins and Warren Harwood said they opposed it because it could lead to costly changes, such as extending health care to the partners of unmarried city employees.

"It is something that can have devastating fiscal impact," Robbins said.

In addition to approving the statement on family, the council:

Called for staff to gather statistical information from the census on household relationships ranging from married couples with children to unrelated adults living together;

Called for a review of city ordinances, rules and regulations that concern families to see if they exclude non-traditional households;

Agreed that the city should become a model employer, developing guidelines that support the goals of the statement on family.

The council acted on recommendations from the city's Human Relations Commission, which spent about two years developing a strategy to strengthen family relationships in Long Beach.

The recommendations concern various aspects of family life. For example, the City Council also approved the commission's policy that calls for the city to replace any low-cost housing that is lost and to work with private agencies to develop better programs to help the homeless.

The council will consider more commission recommendations regarding the homeless in coming weeks.

Gay and lesbian activists have pushed hard to have the city recognize non-traditional households.

Some proponents of the statement, including Lowenthal, would like to see the city extend at least some benefits to the partners of unmarried employees that it gives married workers.

Currently, only legal spouses, children, stepchildren, adopted children and some foster children qualify for the city's health plan. The city also offers bereavement leave and family-care leave for spouses, but not for unmarried partners.

City officials say they do not know how much it would cost if the policy were changed. The city contributes about $400 a month for health, dental and life insurance coverage for each of its 4,300 full-time employees, said William H. Storey, director of human resources. The amount would increase if more dependents were added.

Opponents were bothered that the statement on family recognized gay and lesbian couples.

Several speakers invoked biblical passages to support their argument that homosexual couples do not deserve such recognition. Their backers in the audience members held up signs that read, "U.S. Census definition of family."

"The laws of morality cannot be changed," said Pastor Mark Chappell of the First Baptist Church of Long Beach. "This is not acceptable."

But supporters of the new statement said non-traditional households are becoming increasingly common in Long Beach. About 10% of Long Beach households are occupied by unrelated adults.

Proponents of the city statement said gay and lesbian couples pay taxes and should benefit equally from government services. Their backers held signs that read, "Equal rights not special rights."

"The majority of families do not conform to the nuclear model," said Mark Hague, president of the predominantly gay Long Beach Lambda Democratic Club. "We need families based on what families really are, not based on emotion."

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