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Conservative's Bill Offers Some Rights to Gay Couples

February 12, 2006|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — The conservative Christian group Focus on the Family teaches that gays and lesbians lead dangerous and deviant lifestyles. The ministry has long lobbied against recognizing same-sex couples as spouses or parents.

So it came as a surprise to political analysts -- and to gay and lesbian activists -- when Focus on the Family endorsed a bill this month that would give same-sex couples in Colorado some of the same rights as heterosexual spouses.

The bill tries to chart a neutral middle ground through an issue that has roiled state after state in recent years.

The bill's author, Republican state Sen. Shawn Mitchell, does not support gay marriage or other arrangements, such as civil unions, that would put same-sex households on par with the traditional family. But he also thinks it's wrong that a gay man could be denied the right to visit his partner in the hospital or the ability to carry the partner as a dependent on his health insurance.

So Mitchell has proposed a new legal category in Colorado: "reciprocal beneficiaries."

His bill would allow any two people who are close but cannot legally marry -- a lesbian couple, two elderly brothers, an aunt and her doting niece -- to register with their county clerk as reciprocal beneficiaries.

That would give them access to some of the same rights as married couples with respect to medical decision-making, inheritance and property ownership. Mitchell said he might add other economic rights. (He's considering whether beneficiaries should be able to claim survivor benefits if their loved one dies in a workplace accident.)

Mitchell acknowledges that his bill dodges the key symbolic issue of same-sex marriage -- and that's exactly the point.

"I think we should be looking for constructive solutions, instead of always looking for conflict," he said.

Same-sex households can already obtain many of the benefits spelled out in Mitchell's bill, but it's a costly, time-consuming process requiring several separate legal documents. Mitchell's bill would make the process easy and cheap.

"It corrects unfairness," said Peter Brandt, senior director for public policy at Focus on the Family, which is based in Colorado Springs, about 60 miles south of Denver.

Focus on the Family endorsed the bill the same week it joined several influential clergy to propose a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in Colorado. That measure will probably be on the November ballot; most analysts expect it to pass handily.

Brandt said he saw no inconsistency in fighting same-sex marriage while endorsing limited rights for gay or lesbian households.

Mitchell's bill, he said, does not treat same-sex couples as the legal or the moral equivalent of married spouses. It puts them in the same category as siblings or roommates -- offering them practical help without giving them benefits reserved for married couples, such as the ability to file a joint tax return or to adopt each other's children. "The bill is not based on sexuality," Brandt said. "It's based on need."

A competing bill, offered by two Democrats, would allow same-sex couples to establish domestic partnerships that function as the legal equivalent of marriage. That's the approach favored by Michael Brewer, public policy director of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Colorado. But he said he was pleasantly surprised that Focus on the Family had endorsed even the more limited rights laid out in the Mitchell bill. "It is a shift," he said. "The bill will provide recognition of the legitimacy of same-sex couples."

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