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California and the West

Bill Would Allow Civil Unions for Gays, Lesbians


SACRAMENTO — California would become the second state in the nation to allow gay and lesbian couples to enter into civil unions, under legislation introduced Thursday by a freshman Democrat from West Hollywood.

The bill, duplicating Vermont's landmark law and providing same-sex couples the same rights as marriage, faces long odds.

It comes a year after California voters affirmed support for keeping marriage a heterosexual-only bond by overwhelmingly passing Proposition 22, the so-called Protection of Marriage Act.

"This bill is about equality. This bill is about basic rights," said Assemblyman Paul Koretz, the bill's author. "It's simply a matter of justice."

There are about 400,000 same-sex couples in California, according to a report by Stanford University professor Michael S. Wald. The legislation would allow those couples to file joint state tax returns, file wrongful death suits and make decisions on behalf of sick partners in medical emergencies, among other things.

The author of Proposition 22, state Sen. William "Pete" Knight (R-Palmdale), has called Koretz's bill a brazen move to undermine the will of California voters. Knight and other Republicans are expected to oppose the legislation. He was unavailable for comment Thursday.

Though voters spoke clearly on same-sex marriage with Proposition 22, supporters of the new legislation said Thursday that many people who voted for the proposition were not trying to deny rights to gays and lesbians. Therefore, the supporters contend, those people should not object to a civil-unions law that grants gays and lesbians the same rights as married couples while continuing to preserve the status of marriage.

To enter into a civil union under Koretz's bill, a couple older than 18 would apply for a legal certificate at a county clerk's office. The couple would then be certified by a judge or religious official.

Koretz made a point of stating at his Capitol news conference that he is not gay, and some of the lesbian and gay activists who came to support him said they were happy to see a married, heterosexual man take the lead on the emotional issue.

"A legislative member from the straight community has stepped up to the plate," said Jean Harris, executive director of the California Alliance for Pride and Equality.

All the other politicians on hand were lesbian legislators, including Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-San Francisco), who for several years has led a similar fight to establish and broaden domestic partner rights in California.

Migden successfully carried legislation two years ago that allows same-sex couples to register with the state as domestic partners, and she has reintroduced a follow-up bill, AB 25, that would expand the rights available to registered couples.

"This measure seems to do more than that, and we are pleased," Migden said of the new bill.

Whether Koretz garners the support of more socially moderate Democratic lawmakers--and middle-of-the-road Gov. Gray Davis--remains to be seen, however. The Davis administration has offered no comment on Koretz's bill.

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