Groups ready to battle over gay-benefits bill
A measure likely to win approval in the Legislature would give same-sex couples virtually every state-granted benefit that married couples now enjoy — everything but the name marriage itself.
Seattle Times staff reporters
Benefits proposedfor domestic partners
THE MEASURE the Senate passed Tuesday night would extend marriagelike benefits in a number of areas, from workers' compensation insurance to estate-tax provisions. Among other things, the measure would allow registered domestic partners:
To use sick leave to care for an ill partner.
To access an injured partner's wages and benefits and that partner's unpaid wages if he or she dies.
To access unemployment and disability benefits.
The measure would require divorce proceedings for those ending their union.
Source: Office of State Sen. Ed Murray
Like the final piece to a puzzle, a measure passed Tuesday night by the state Senate and likely to win approval in the House would give same-sex couples virtually every state-granted benefit that married couples now enjoy — everything but the name marriage itself.
That has galvanized the state's gay-marriage opponents, who worry that the measure would give same-sex couples legal ammunition to go for full-out marriage once the state has already granted them everything short of it.
Not since the Legislature debated and passed the state's Defense of Marriage Act a decade ago, defining marriage as between one man and one woman, has a gay-rights issue generated such frenzy in Olympia.
Religious and traditional-values groups are waging campaigns to derail the measure, which passed 30-18 Tuesday night. In commercials broadcast on cable outlets and posted on YouTube, in a newspaper ad, and through phone calls to state lawmakers, they're targeting legislators and voters in swing districts, warning that the bill redefines traditional marriage.
They've packed legislative hearings and flooded the offices of state lawmakers with telephone calls. They plan a rally in Olympia next week to get their message across.
"This is the last incremental step before they ... try to attach the name 'marriage' to what is now called domestic partnership," said Gary Randall, head of the Faith and Freedom Network, which opposes the measure.
If it passes, he said, gay-marriage advocates could argue in court that there's no legal difference between domestic partnership and marriage. The court could agree, he said, allowing partnerships to be called marriage.
What measure would do
The Legislature is deciding on the final piece in a series of measures that would extend marriage-like benefits to gays and lesbians registered under the state's Domestic Partnership law.
Currently 5,111 same-sex couples are in that registry.
Under Senate Bill 5688 and its companion, House Bill 1727, all remaining areas of state law that now speak only to married couples would be amended to provide domestic partners benefits in such areas as workers' compensation, pension, unemployment and the use of sick leave to care for one another.
The bills would also require same-sex partners to go through the same process as married couples when dissolving their unions.
The measures would not confer federal benefits to registered domestic partners — such as filing a joint income-tax return — and in most other states, these Washington benefits would be invalid.
Sen. Ed Murray, sponsor of the Senate version, has made no secret all along of his ultimate goal: to win full marriage rights for gays and lesbians in Washington.
"Morally, we hope this discussion leads to marriage," he said. "Legally it does not.
"My partner and I have been together 18 years and would love the opportunity to marry. Domestic partnership is as close as we can get without being granted marriage."
For the past three sessions of the Legislature, Washington gay-rights advocates have been doing what those in California did years ago — building piece by piece a slate of rights and benefits that could eventually win them full marriage.
Prop. 8-type fight?
Randall and Larry Stickney, president of Washington Values Alliance, said if the measure passes, they plan to ask voters to reverse it.
"We're fighting with a great sense of urgency," Stickney said. "In light of the California Supreme Court decision, it inspired us that if we didn't fight, it's lost. We feel backed into a corner."
California's high court ruled last year that gay couples had a constitutional right to marriage. Opponents placed Proposition 8 on the ballot to curtail that right, and voters passed it last November.
Jane Abbott Lighty and her partner Pete-e Petersen said they registered as domestic partners on the first day they were allowed to in 2007.
Together 32 years, "we raised a child and paid taxes," said Lighty, in her 70s. "For us as older Americans, seniors, and same-sex couples, we face medical problems sooner than younger people do. We have to make decisions about estates, legal protections, and this takes on even more importance."
Ultimately, she said, she would like to use the word marriage to describe her relationship with Petersen.
"Marriage is a word recognized all over the world, in any language, culture, it is understood," she said.
That, Murray said, will take time.
"I think we're a lot closer than we were some years ago," he said. "But most of my colleagues have not been visited by a constituent who has asked for marriage equality. The governor is not on record of supporting marriage for gays and lesbians. We still have a lot of work to do."
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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