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Originally published February 1, 2012 at 8:25 PM | Page modified February 1, 2012 at 9:57 PM

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Little outcry over plan to shift domestic partners into marriage

A provision in the state's same-sex marriage bill that would automatically convert domestic partnerships to marriage has not drawn the kind of concern supporters expected it might have.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Sponsors of same-sex marriage legislation and their supporters held lively discussions over how to treat registered domestic partners should gay marriage become legal in Washington state.

They considered maintaining the option of full domestic partnerships, a legal arrangement the Legislature established four years ago to confer marriagelike state benefits to registered gay couples and some straight senior couples.

In the end, however, they settled on an all-or-nothing option — requiring most of the state's same-sex domestic partners to convert to marriage by June 30, 2014. If they don't and haven't dissolved their partnership by then, the state would convert it to marriage for them.

Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, primary sponsor of the same-sex marriage bill in the Senate, said that, if the gay community is to achieve full marriage equality through this legislation, same-sex couples should expect no more marriagelike options than opposite-sex couples have.

"We thought it was important to end domestic partnerships at some point so we didn't end up with two different statuses," Murray said. "Over the years, as we debated domestic partnership in the House and the Senate we maintained that this was a step toward marriage and that we weren't trying to create an alternate to marriage. It's imperfect and short term."

While the all-in or all-out provision might strike some as heavy-handed, supporters say they've had surprisingly little pushback.

Zach Silk, campaign manager for Washington United for Marriage, a coalition that favors same-sex marriage, said he anticipated questions but has received none.

"It seems in general that people who are in a domestic partnership are eager to be married and perfectly fine with being automatically converted," he said.

The legislation passed the Senate on a 28-21 vote Wednesday night and should easily win passage in the House. Gov. Chris Gregoire has said she would sign it into law.

If that happens, opponents say they will work to force a referendum vote on the measure in November.

Age makes difference

When lawmakers established the domestic-partnership law in 2007, they included older straight couples, provided at least one of the two is 62 or older. That provision was a recognition that, by marrying, seniors sometimes can jeopardize their pension and Social Security benefits.

Under the same-sex marriage legislation, those older couples — gay or straight — could remain in domestic partnerships and continue to form them.

But domestic partnerships for gay partners younger than 62 essentially would end.

The gay-marriage bill also would recognize same-sex marriages from other states and allow out-of-state couples to marry here. Those already in civil unions or domestic partnerships who move here would have up to a year to convert those arrangements to marriage or lose the benefits of marriage granted by the state.

For domestic partners registered in Washington, the secretary of state would notify each partner of the new law, giving them until June 30, 2014, to obtain a marriage license. The agency would mail a similar notice by May 1, 2014, giving them two months to marry, dissolve their partnership or have the state convert it to marriage.

Exact details on how all this would work still must be ironed out, the attorneys and officials from the Secretary of State's Office say.

One wrinkle might result from the fact that many of the addresses on file for the 9,315 domestic partners now in the registry are invalid — the result of people having moved or split up without updating their information on file.

Two years ago, when the secretary of state mailed notices to couples, hundreds were returned undelivered.

Other states did same

Forcing gay couples to dissolve or marry isn't a new concept.

In Connecticut and New Hampshire, where civil unions existed before same-sex marriage was legalized in recent years, couples faced the same choices. And attorneys there said they were unaware of problems resulting from the conversions.

But Sarah Luthens, co-founder of the Seattle-based advocacy group LGBTQ Allyship, said people — gay and straight — could have all kinds of reasons for not wanting to marry and shouldn't be forced to choose between marriage and retaining domestic-partnership benefits.

Luthens said her objections aren't for her; she recently proposed to her partner of five years. But she favors what she calls family diversity and believes "the opportunity to be in a state-recognized domestic partnership should be made available to couples who are in committed loving relationships, dedicated to taking care of each other. It's all about the freedom to marry."

Murray said supporters of same-sex marriage want to head off any arguments that opponents might make to voters if the measure ends up as a referendum in November.

If gay couples could choose between domestic partnerships and marriage, he said, "the argument could be made that we created a special category or a special right for same-sex couples. Straight people can be married, but gays can have marriage or a domestic partnership. They don't need marriage, so just vote 'no.' "

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420

or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @turnbullL

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