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Domestic Partners Bill OKd

The state Senate votes for a measure that would grant same-sex and unmarried couples legal rights nearly equal to those of wedded pairs.

August 29, 2003|Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The state Senate on Thursday approved a bill backed by Gov. Gray Davis that would give domestic partners most of the legal rights and responsibilities of married couples.

It was immediately cheered by supporters as a major victory in their battle to legalize gay marriages in California.

"This is a massive building block," said elated Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) moments after the Democrat-dominated Senate narrowly passed her bill 23-14 -- a margin of only two more votes than required. "It gets us to maybe 90% on the state level of what we might get" eventually.

"I don't think we will be content until we have full equal rights," said Goldberg, a lesbian who, with her partner, raised a son. Although the bill is certain to become law, she said, the legalization of gay marriages remains the No. 1 priority of gays in California. Gay marriage, she said, "is not going to go away."

Legal experts said the legislation would put California a close second behind Vermont in the array of benefits and responsibilities applicable to domestic partners. Vermont is the only state that recognizes "civil unions" and is considered the leader in granting civil protections and services to same-sex couples.

During an unusually eloquent debate that was free of the highly charged rhetoric of past fights over gay rights, both sides liberally cited God, the Bible and Jesus in support of their cases.

At one point, a hush cloaked the chamber as a senator lovingly recalled how his lesbian daughter had grown up as normal as anyone else and said she deserves to be free of antigay discrimination.

However, opponents warned that the bill threatened the sanctity of marriage and flew in the face of voter approval in 2000 of Proposition 22, which recognized as legal in California only marriages between a man and a woman. Proponents of the bill countered that the legislation would make no changes in Proposition 22.

The bill (AB 205) would extend to domestic partners most of the legal rights, benefits, responsibilities and obligations of married heterosexuals in California. It would not affect federal laws that apply to marriage.

Under the bill, for example, dissolution of registered domestic partnerships would be subject to divorce laws, including the awarding of financial support to ex-spouses, division of jointly owned property and the determination of child custody.

Registration Required

Domestic partners who had registered their status with the state also would be mutually responsible for debts, would receive death benefits from workers' compensation insurance and public assistance programs and would be shielded from discrimination in housing and employment on the basis of the couple's living arrangements. Struck from the measure was a provision that would have allowed the filing of a joint state income tax return.

Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), the Legislature's first openly gay member, whose long-time companion is a woman named Barbara, led the fight for the bill, anticipating that some opponents would assert that the bill would allow gays to marry.

"I wish to heck it was a marriage bill. I wish that Barbara and I could get married," Kuehl said. Instead, she said, the measure merely "adds a few benefits and responsibilities to the domestic partnership law."

But Sen. William "Pete" Knight (R-Palmdale), the chief author of Proposition 22, denounced the bill as a "clear violation" of the voters' will as expressed in the overwhelming vote on that measure. Throughout the debate, Knight, the father of a gay son, stood at his desk scowling.

Another opponent of the bill, Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta), warned of what he called an attempt to bypass Proposition 22. He reminded colleagues that "marriage is a sacred institution ordained by God."

But Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar) announced to the chamber that his daughter is a lesbian and said that, if she entered into a domestic partnership, she should be free of laws that favor heterosexual couples but not homosexual domestic partners. In a heartfelt speech that silenced the noisy chamber, Alarcon detailed how, as a little girl, his daughter "wore beautiful dresses ... she played at sports activities and danced as all young girls do. She enjoyed life with a vibrant spirit."

A Father's Concern

One day, he said, his normal daughter with a normal upbringing, "realized she was attracted to women." At the time, he said, he wondered "what happened? Did I do something wrong." Since then, he said, he's "come to the conclusion that she is normal."

But, Alarcon said, his daughter and other gays and lesbians should not be discriminated against by laws whose rights apply only to married couples. In an appeal for compassion, Alarcon said, "These are normal people. They deserve normal rights, normal dignity and normal respect."

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