The California state assembly approved sweeping legislation Wednesday that would grant same-sex partners most of the same spousal rights--and responsibilities--as married couples. Passed on a 41-29 vote, the bill does not give gay men and lesbians the right to marry. But it would guarantee people who register as domestic partners such legal and financial benefits as the ability to file joint income tax returns and the standing to petition courts for child support and alimony. "What it means for both same-sex and senior couples is, we are about to see California enact a law that will provide them significant rights and protections that they presently don't have and provide civil rights protections for lesbian and gay couples that no legislature has voluntarily passed in the history of this country," said Geoffrey Kors, executive director of Equality California, a gay rights group.
During an hour-long debate, supporters characterized the measure, introduced by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), as "landmark legislation," while opponents criticized it as weakening the institution of marriage. In an effort to defeat the bill, Republican lawmakers argued that the measure conflicts with Proposition 22, a 2000 ballot measure that defined marriage as applying only to a man and a woman. "There are alternative lifestyles. Fine, do your own thing. It's your business," said Assemblyman Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City). "But I don't want the government to be instituting this lifestyle as an acceptable alternative lifestyle."
In a separate bill, the assembly passed a measure that requires state contractors to extend benefits to employees' domestic partners. The bill, sponsored by Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego), passed on a 42-30 vote late Wednesday night.
In 1999, California became the first state to allow same-sex couples as well as elderly unmarried opposite-sex couples to register as domestic partners. Two years ago the legislature passed a measure providing registered domestic partners additional rights previously available only to heterosexual spouses or next of kin, including the right to make medical decisions for incapacitated partners, the right to sue for a partner's wrongful death, and the right to adopt a partner's child. Goldberg's measure expands on those efforts by extending to registered same-sex couples, who now number over 19,000 in the state, every other marriage-based entitlement that could be amended under state law without a two-thirds vote. They include access to family student housing, bereavement and family care leave, exemptions from estate and gift taxes, child custody and visitation hearings, and health coverage under a spouse's insurance plan. Other rights once available only to a husband or wife that would be covered by the bill are the right not to be forced to testify against a partner at trial, the ability to apply for absentee ballots on a partner's behalf, and, in the event of a loved one's death, the authority to consent to an autopsy, donate organs, and make funeral arrangements.
In addition, the legislation carries new obligations. Registered couples would be responsible for their partner's debts, would have their income factored into their partner's eligibility for public assistance benefits, and would be required to disclose their relationships to avoid nepotism and conflicts of
Gov. Gray Davis, who signed the earlier domestic-partner legislation, has not yet taken a position on Goldberg's bill. The bill now moves to the state senate.