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Originally published September 26, 2012 at 7:21 PM | Page modified September 27, 2012 at 8:17 AM

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Truth Needle: Gay-marriage ad fails to mention rights granted to domestic partners

The Truth Needle: A new television ad by same-sex-marriage supporters leaves viewers with the impression that a lesbian couple featured in the ad did not benefit from a certain kind of treatment from a Seattle-area hospital because they cannot legally marry.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The claim: In an emotionally moving 30-second TV ad that same-sex-marriage supporters began running in the Seattle market last Friday, Seattle resident Chris Morningstar speaks of her daughter Sarah Morningstar and Sarah's partner, Cheryl Chow, and their struggle to deal with Chow's brain cancer.

Chris Morningstar talks about watching what the couple has had to endure because they cannot legally marry and ends by saying: "One night in the hospital Cheryl had a seizure; she was asking for Sarah and no one called. Only marriage guarantees that all couples can be there for each other when it really matters."

What we found: Mostly false.

To state that "only marriage guarantees that all couples can be there for one another when it really matters" suggests that the two women did not benefit from a certain kind of treatment by the Seattle-area hospital because they are unable to marry in this state.

What the ad doesn't say is that the state has a domestic-partnership law that extends to domestic partners like the two women the same rights and privileges that it grants to married couples — from health-insurance coverage for partners to the right of couples to visit each other in the hospital or make medical decisions on one another's behalf.

Same-sex-marriage supporters worked hard to establish the domestic-partnership law in 2007 and later to keep it on the books.

In defending its TV ad, Washington United for Marriage said it has since come to believe that arrangements such as domestic partnerships and civil unions are poor and unequal substitutes for marriage.

They point to studies, conducted in states with such laws in place, that found that these arrangements "invite and encourage unequal treatment of same-sex couples and their children."

While few people can tell you what a domestic partnership is, the same-sex-marriage proponents say, marriage is a concept that's universally understood.

Supporters want voters in November to approve Referendum 74, endorsing a measure passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, that would make same-sex marriage legal in Washington.

It would offer gay couples no additional state right or benefits beyond what they now have under the domestic-partnership law, other than the right to marry.

A well-known and longtime Seattle civic leader, the 66-year-old Chow is a former Seattle City Council member who served four years on the Seattle School board. She and Sarah Morningstar are in a domestic partnership and are raising a daughter together.

The ad doesn't say why the hospital didn't call for Morningstar when Chow asked, and campaign officials said they didn't ask the couple if they knew.

Along with the domestic-partnership law, federal rules enacted last year require most hospitals — those receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding — to grant visitation to gay and lesbian partners of patients, regardless of whether they are in a registered domestic partnership.

Also, the Washington State Hospital Association recommends to its members that staff take patients at their word that they are in a domestic partnership and not ask them to prove it by presenting a card.

Anne Levinson, an adviser to the Washington United campaign, said, "We had all hoped that those approaches would provide all the protections that LGBT couples and their families needed.

"Unfortunately, what we learned over the years is that marriage does matter. You are recognized and treated a certain way because of it. When you call it something different, people can treat you differently."

Levinson said supporters have heard from counterparts in other states that the conversation changes once marriage replaces that something else.

"Nobody questions it anymore," she said. "When you say you're married, it's a different world. The landscape is known and people understand it."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.

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