Faceoff: Howdy partners!

By PETER ROFF and JILLIAN JONAS, UPI National Political Analysts  |  Oct. 6, 2003 at 11:57 AM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 2 (UPI) -- In September the governor of California signed legislation expanding existing domestic partner legislation to eliminate the distinction between the rights according married spouses and those granted to same-sex partners. California follows Vermont in awarding gay and lesbian couples many of the same rights enjoyed by their married counterparts.

The legislation did not sanction same-sex marriage or so-called civil unions but did require couples to register as domestic partners to receive coverage under the new law.

"I am strongly committed to extending human rights and equal rights to everyone," Gov. Gray Davis said. "A family is a family not because of gender but because of values, like commitment, trust and love." Opponents of the move argue that marriage should be between a man and a woman and that other relationships should not be placed on equal footing.

Question: Should California's domestic partnership law been expanded? UPI National Political Analysts Peter Roff in Washington and Jillian Jonas in New York City face off on opposite sides of this critical question.


Jonas: The law makes sense for California.

Imagine being married to your partner for whatever length of time. Imagine said partner is in a fatal accident, but as the spouse, you are not permitted to make funeral arrangements; you cannot authorize to donate the organs or to even consent to an autopsy.

Those are just a few of the basic rights covered in a recent law signed by California Gov. Gray Davis explicitly designed to close legal loopholes left uncovered by a 1999 law creating the state's domestic partner registry.

The legislation gives same-sex couples other fundamental rights afforded married couples including permitting bereavement and family care leave; giving coverage under each other's car insurance plan; giving equal status to both parents if they have or adopt a child together and allowing them to seek child support, alimony and custody.

Seth Kilbourn from the Human Rights Campaign, the largest national lesbian and gay political organization, called the law, "An important step toward equality under the law for same-sex couples. This debate is not about religion, as some claim. Churches and other groups will make their own decisions about relationship recognition as they always have. This bill is about making sure that same sex couples and their families have the same rights and protections that most people in California take for granted."

This law is an attempt to equalize the domestic situations between gay and straight married couples, not a sanctioning of gay marriage, regardless of right-wing spin. Rather, as Assemblyman John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, said, "This is catching up government with where the people of California are."

A recent Field Poll supports that statement, finding 72 percent of California voters surveyed supported expanded rights for same-sex couples.

Remember, no rights exist in this law that aren't already granted to committed couples who happen to be married. There are no "extra" benefits here.

In fact, the law does not allow gay couples to jointly file state tax returns. It does not grant veterans' Medicare and Social Security benefits, nor benefits under the federal housing or food stamps programs or immigration rights to spouses -- all rights normally granted to married couples.

California is a state with strong support for human rights, particularly those affecting the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered communities. More than 22,000 couples have registered since the inception of the domestic partner law, including both homosexual and elderly heterosexual couples.

This law expanding rights for same-sex couples is a natural progression from an inherently sympathetic constituency, consistent with existing state laws. "As governor, I will continue to do everything within my power to honor the dignity, humanity and privacy of every Californian, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, national origin, gender or sexual orientation," Davis said in a statement.

Roff: Hard cases make bad law.

The literature supporting gay marriage and domestic partnerships is replete with angonizingly painful stories of people who suffered because a love one died and left behind a survivor who was not considered a family member.

This emotionalism makes it hard to argue against domestic partnerships but there are ways to eliminate the inequities without elevating other relationships to the status of marriage.

Individuals can, for example, enter into contracts defining rights of inheritance or custodial responsibilities or making provision for funeral arrangements. Contracts are one way to resolve many of the issues proponents of domestic partnerships cite as reasons making state recognition of these relationships necessary.

What contracts cannot do is compel others to recognize the relationships as legally or morally valid. It may be true that 72 percent of California respondents, as the Field Poll found, support expanded rights for same-sex couples. But it also true that 61 percent of Californians voting in the 2000 election cast ballots in favor of Proposition 22 that rewrote state law to say, "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in the state of California."

Depending on how the question is phrased, the American people may be willing to give same-sex relationships equal status as marriage, traditionally defined.

They are unwilling to sanction the "unfair," as the inability to access the economic benefits married couples enjoy is portrayed as being.

The emotional appeals on behalf of domestic partnerships manipulate the egalitarian spirit of the American people, making them feel guilty while breaking down their opposition. Casting this as a moral issue overlooks other aspects worth considering.

Type the words "domestic partnership" into an Internet search engine and the result will be page after page of links to information explaining how to take advantage of the economic benefits of domestic partnerships.

On the economic side of the ledger the difference between domestic partners and a gay married couple is largely in name only. Much of what accrues through marriage -- the right to shared insurance coverage, family medical leave -- has been granted by Davis through his legislation. Yet these gifts have costs, costs that everyone else is compelled to shoulder. One perceived inequity has been swapped for another.

Leaving aside the issue of whether such relationships are inherently immoral, the drive toward domestic partnerships is the onramp to the road leading to recognition of gay marriage. It is not a matter of whether a couple considers themselves married but whether everyone else does. The legislation is part of a larger effort to have a type of relationship accorded a status many people of good will do not believe it deserves.

Domestic partnerships force employers and caregivers and others to recognize same-sex relationships as marriages whether they are called that are not. It is not, therefore, too far removed from the state compelling everyone else, as private citizens, to believe the same thing.

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