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January 12, 2007
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Volume 35
Issue 02
 
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Lawmakers seek marriage equality, legal remedy for same-sex couples - 'I hope it helps us get to marriage,' said Sen. Ed Murray.
Lawmakers seek marriage equality, legal remedy for same-sex couples - 'I hope it helps us get to marriage,' said Sen. Ed Murray.
Lawmakers seek marriage equality, legal remedy for same-sex couples - 'I hope it helps us get to marriage,' said Sen. Ed Murray. Washington State's five openly Gay legislators unveiled legislation on Thursday that seeks to legalize marriage for same-sex couples and bestow certain rights and responsibilities once reserved only for married couples. The lawmakers say they are seeking a legislative solution to the legal inequality that exists under state law.

A proposed domestic partnership bill includes language that would allow a person to visit a partner in the hospital, make medical decisions for an incapacitated partner, make funeral arrangements, and attain inheritance rights in the absence of a will. The second bill would define marriage as "a civil contract between two persons" and amend marriage laws to include gender-neutral terms.

"I hope it helps us get to marriage," said Sen. Ed Murray, the primary Senate sponsor of the two bills, about the domestic partnership legislation. "Number one; it is a way to educate people about the individual protections that marriage provides. Number two; it actually gives relief to couples who need it."

Murray told the Seattle Gay News on Thursday, that he sees the proposed domestic partnership law as a stepping stone for the rights of same-sex couples. "It is only the beginning," he said. "Next year we will have another domestic partnership bill to add more protections. The year after that we will have another. Hopefully, by that time we can get to marriage."

Murray had introduced marriage equality measures before, but they failed to receive a hearing. Last year, he succeeded in passing the Anderson-Murray Civil Rights Bill, which had languished in Olympia for nearly 30 years. The new law took affect last July and prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment, and public accommodations.

"I think we will get there in a few years," said Murray about marriage equality. "It is only going to be a few years. It is not going to be 30 years. This is not 1977."

State Rep. Joe McDermott will introduce the domestic partnership bill in the House. "I certainly expect the domestic partnership legislation to do very well in the Legislature this year and we will be pushing the issue of marriage as well," he said. "Marriage is the goal. Legislation is incremental.

"If we can't get marriage this year, then, we need the immediate relief. We need immediate help. In the short term, it is domestic partnerships and we will be persistent about that. At the same time, we will continue to educate and pursue marriage."

Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, will introduce the marriage equality measure in the House. "...[T]here is no laws ... that give affect to something other than marriage," he said. "It explains why it is important that we have that word."

Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, and Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, will co-sponsor the House versions of both bills, which will be introduced next week

The lawmakers say Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, House Speaker Frank Chopp and Gov. Christine Gregoire have all expressed support for the domestic partnership legislation. Brown told the Associated Press this week that she will co-sponsor the domestic partnership bill. Gov. Gregoire had previously expressed support for extending marriage-like rights and protections to same-sex couples, according to a spokesperson.

"What makes me optimistic is that we have incredible legislative leaders and a House Speaker, Senate Majority Leader and Governor who understand that LGBT families are living without the safety net legally married couples take for granted every day," said Equal Rights Washington Advocacy Director Josh Friedes. "If we couple this with the grassroots capacity, and public support, that was built around the passage of the anti-discrimination law, and the marriage equality lawsuit, you can see that we are better situated than we have ever been before."

The lawmakers also seek to protect senior citizens in their domestic partnership proposal. Unmarried heterosexual couples who include one partner over the age of 62 could qualify. "Older women are among the poorest people in our state," said Lisa Stone, executive director of the Northwest Women's Law Center, who spoke briefly during the press conference. "If they don't have these protections, it can be devastating and at the most difficult time in their lives."

Couples who quality would need to register with the Secretary of State, share a common residence, be at least 18 years of age and not be married or in a domestic partnership with anyone else. Applicants who are not capable of consenting to a relationship or who are close blood relatives would be prohibited.

Domestic partnerships, civil unions, or reciprocal beneficiary relationships registered in other states would be recognized in Washington State should the domestic partnership bill become law. However, domestic partnerships created at the city or county level will not be automatically added to the state registry.

The city of Seattle has a voluntary domestic partner registry, which does not extend any legal rights or responsibilities or any contractual relationships or obligations between the registrants. However, city administrators can use the registry as proof of domestic partnership to extend benefits to the partner of city employees. Mayor Greg Nickels also passed an executive order, which requires city departments to recognize the civil unions, domestic partnerships and marriages of city employees.

"Mayor Nickels has a long history in this area and believes very firmly in the efforts of the folks in Olympia to grant all of our state's residents equal access to the benefits of marriage and domestic partnership," said Marty McOmber, a spokesperson for the Seattle mayor. "The city has taken many steps in this direction. In fact, we have gone as far as the law will allows us to go. We would like to see the ability to grant domestic partnership rights expanded for everyone. We can give it to anyone who works for the city, but he believes very strongly that this is a basic question of fairness and equal access to the benefits of marriage and of domestic partnership.

"Obviously, this is a question for the state Legislature. However, he will give it the support of the city and support it in any way he can. He believes that the city has served as an example of how effective this type of legislation can be."

Seattle City Councilmember Sally Clark, who has been in a committed relationship with another woman for over 10 years, joined the mayor in supporting the domestic partnership legislation. "Given what we have been through in the last year, I think we need to keep in mind that there are beautiful things about our relationships and there are also the nuts and bolts things too," she said. "While we work on total marriage equality, it is good to look at the immediate and see how we work for and obtain the protections of marriage. If that is brick by brick, then, we do that for awhile."

In a narrow 5-4 decision last July, the Washington state Supreme Court had ruled to uphold the state's Defense of Marriage Act, which bars same-sex couples from access to marriage. The state's highest court overruled two lower courts, which had concluded that the law was unconstitutional.

In their judicial opinions, several justices recognized the role of the Legislature in the debate over the merits of marriage equality. "...[T]he Legislature may want to re-examine the impact of marriage laws on all citizens of this state," Justice Barbara Madsen wrote. Chief Justice Gerry Alexander said that there is nothing in the lead opinion "which should be read as casting doubt on the right of the Legislature or the people to broaden the marriage act or provide other forms of civil union if that is their will." However, Justice James Johnson said that the Legislature should insist "upon compelling evidence before making sweeping alteration in marriage."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which represented 11 couples in the landmark marriage case, called the introduction of the bills an "important step."

"Attaining civil marriage for all couples remains the goal. It is a matter of fundamental fairness," said ACLU Communications Director Doug Honig. "We recognize that this will likely take awhile longer to achieve, so, we also support other measures that give couples very important protections in their relationships."

Last month, New Jersey joined Connecticut and Vermont in granting civil unions to same-sex couples. Currently, Massachusetts is the only state to allow such couples to marry. California has domestic partnerships that bestow the same rights as marriage.

Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, also announced on Thursday that he will introduce a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman and protect the 1998 DOMA law he sponsored. "Today we heard that the public has a 'choice' between Gay marriage and domestic partnerships," he said. "But that's a false choice. The public should have every option on the table, including an option to affirm their support of traditional marriage."

"I'm worried that passage of the Democrats' domestic-partnership bill could eventually lead to the erosion of traditional marriage where couples can choose convenience over real commitment." Swecker's proposed constitutional amendment is likely to enjoy little support in the Democratic Party controlled Legislature. A vote of two-thirds of the Legislature and a vote of the people would be required to amend the Washington State constitution.

"The citizens of this state don't support using the constitution to discriminate," said Murray.

According to Friedes, the proposed legislation will be a key focus of a series of events, entitled "Vow to Take a Stand," to take place around the state in early February and a lobby day in Olympia on February 26. "We must prepare ourselves for stiff opposition from the radical and religious right,' said Friedes. "We have a lot of work to do to educate the public about marriage equality and the lives of Gay and Lesbian families."

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