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February 2, 2007
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Volume 35
Issue 05
 
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Domestic partnership bills pass out of committees
Domestic partnership bills pass out of committees
Senate, House move closer to floor votes

by Robert Raketty - SGN Staff Writer On Thursday, the Senate Committee on Government Operations and Elections voted 4 to 3, along party lines, to pass a domestic partnership measure (Senate Bill 5336) onto the Rules Committee, the next step before heading to the floor of the Senate.

For the first time in the history of pro-Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender legislation in Olympia, the State Senate took the first step in moving a bill forward. The bill's primary Senate sponsor, State Senator Ed Murray, D-Seattle, introduced the legislation earlier this month.

"In 1998, this Legislature stood in the doorway of justice and blocked our right to marriage equality," Murray told the committee at a public hearing on Thursday, January 25. "I ask the Legislature this year not to stand in the same door and deny us the right to care for each other."

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. Washington State's five openly Gay legislators sought to rectify the inequity by introducing domestic partner legislation and a bill to legalize marriage for same-sex couples in both the State House of Representatives and Senate.

SB 5336 and its House companion, HB 1351, 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. Senior citizens over the age of 62 and in an unmarried heterosexual relationship would also qualify.

The domestic partnership legislation also made headway in the House, where the Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on Wednesday about the legislation. Two openly Gay lawmakers, Reps. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, and Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, sit on the committee.

"It is about fairness and equality, I would assert. It covers rights that are very basic," said Rep. Joe McDermott, D-Seattle, the primary sponsor of the domestic partnership bill, to members of the committee. McDermott is also openly Gay. "I believe we extend these protections to couples in need to provide some humanity, some relief and some intervention for couples who truly do experience difficult situations and need the support from the state of Washington."

During the hearing, Charlene Strong recounted her experience after the death of her partner of 10 years. During a storm on December 14, Katheryn Fleming drowned in the flooded basement of the home the two shared in the Madison Valley neighborhood of Seattle. Strong said she almost lost her life trying to save Fleming, who had gone down into the basement to save audio equipment she used to narrate audio books.

According to Strong, who manages a dental office and is also an interior designer, she had initially been denied access to her partner at the hospital, was refused the right to make tissue donation decisions and was unable to make funeral arrangements. In each case, a relative of Fleming's had to consulted.

"A lot of people wonder why I am here after such a huge loss and with such stress in my life and trauma," Strong testified. "I've lost my home. I've lost my partner. And, at this point, I feel like I lost my dignities."

Beth Reis and, her partner of nearly 30 years, Barbara Steele also testified about their family, which includes four children, 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

"We shouldn't have to pay hundreds of dollars for one right, when other people get hundreds of rights for a $54 marriage license," said Reis.

Representatives of business, mainstream community groups and municipalities have supported the domestic partnership legislation. "Much of this bill addresses healthcare and hospital decision making. We are here to testify in support of those provisions," said Cassie Sauer, vice president of the Washington State Hospital Association, a membership organization that represents the hospitals of Washington State. "The stories you just heard illustrate exactly why this bill is needed. ... The person who should make healthcare decisions for a patient who can't make their own decisions is the person that the patient wants to be making those decisions. For spouses this is easy. For unmarried couples, they are in serious legal limbo.

"Hospitals are forced to try to sort out challenging family situations and this is really difficult. They are using their social service resources; their legal resources to try to mediate family conflicts. That is not what hospitals are there for. They are there to provide excellent, high quality, healthcare; not to mediate family conflicts."

Committee members also heard testimony from a variety of groups who opposed the legislation for religious and ideological reasons. "[P]eople who look like me are really the one's that are discriminated against," said Cheryl E. Haskins, executive director of Allies for Marriage and Children, who is African-American. "This bill absolutely has nothing to do with civil rights and it is offensive for those of us whose parents fought for civil rights; whose father fought in this military -- in a segregated Army; and whose mother actually rode on the back of the bus. ... It is very offensive to even hear that stated in this hearing.

"Certain marriage benefits are targeted in this bill, which ones will be next. It has been very clear from the beginning, since the session started, that this is about marriage."

Several opponents also testified that the bill was discriminatory, because it applied only to same-sex couples and senior citizens. "This bill is being positioned as if is to obtain benefits for protections, but only for a small group. My concern is that if this bill is passed, it will not address the other taxpaying citizens of our state who will not be allowed the protection of the law," testified Carla Campbell, a human resource professional who says she has been working in the benefits area for over five years.

McDermott said he was pleased by the outcome of the hearing, which he said "presented our case very well" to members of the committee. "Charlene Strong movingly spoke of losing her partner, Kate Fleming, just last month and the indignities Charlene suffered as Kate was in the hospital and later in making funeral arrangements. The bill addresses everything Charlene faced," he said. "Beth Reis and Barbara Steele drew praise from Rep. Pat Lantz, who is chair of the committee, for the way they intertwined their testimony as they have their lives."

Moeller said few opinions were swayed by the arguments of the opposition. "The opposition ... brought out their fringe members for everyone to see and hear," he said. "Their disingenuous arguments on 'protecting everyone instead of just homosexuals,' I believe, were easily seen for what they were."

"I was also struck by how really low key the hearing was as compared to the hearings conducted in the Senate Chambers in the early 90's when [the late State Senator] Cal [Anderson] was here. Three panels each of pro and con and, then, on to the next bill. No signs, no clapping or booing, no crying children, and no circus."

The Judiciary Committee is expected to vote the bill out of committee and onto the Rules Committee on Friday, February 2.

Equal Rights Washington's Advocacy Director Josh Friedes praised the chairs of both committees for their handling of the domestic partnership legislation. "As I understand it, the domestic partnership bill will now move to the Senate Rules Committee. We expect positive action on the DP bill from the House Judiciary Committee shortly," he said. "The chair of the Senate Committee on Operations and Elections, Sen. Darlene Fairley, and the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Pat Lantz, should both be commended for running fair, efficient, and respectful hearings."

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 this month and a lobby day in Olympia on February 26. Both events are being co-sponsored by ERW.

In all, 56 legislators in the House and 21 in the Senate are sponsoring the domestic partnership bill. Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown and House Speaker Frank Chopp have both said they support the legislation. It is believed Governor Christine Gregoire would sign the bill should it appear on her desk.

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