Gay and lesbian couples in California would get many of the same rights as married couples under a bill sent to the governor's desk that critics say would amount to gay marriage. California already has a strong domestic-partners law, but gay rights advocates say the new bill--approved by the assembly on Wednesday and expected to be signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis--would put the state on the same footing as Vermont. The bill does not endorse "civil union" ceremonies as Vermont does, but otherwise the legislation differs only in the state-specific rights it grants, said Geoffrey Kors, executive director of Equality Now, a statewide civil rights group. The measure expands the rights of gay and lesbian couples in areas ranging from health coverage to funeral arrangements. "It's an extremely historic day in a historic summer that we are beginning to call the summer of gay love in California," Kors said of the bill.
The 41-32 assembly vote was marked by heated debate. Opponents argued that the legislation would violate the will of the voters when they approved Proposition 22, a 2000 ballot measure defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. "Gay marriage is wrong; it is an aberration to God," Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy said. Added Republican assemblyman Jay La Suer to the measure's supporters: "May the wrath of the people of California come down on you." The bill's backers deny there is any conflict between the bill and Proposition 22, noting that most Californians draw a distinction between gay marriage and giving domestic partners greater rights. "This is catching up government with where the people of California are," said openly gay assemblyman John Laird, a Democrat. A recent Field Poll found that 72% of California voters surveyed support expanded rights for same-sex couples.
The bill, scheduled to take effect in 2005, would allow domestic partners to seek child support and alimony and would give them the right to health coverage under a partner's plan. Other provisions would give domestic partners access to bereavement and family care leave as well as exemptions from estate and gift taxes. After a partner's death, the other would have the authority to consent to an autopsy or organ donation or to make funeral arrangements. The bill also would prevent courts from forcing a domestic partner to testify against the other partner in a trial. The bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), also would place greater legal responsibilities on domestic partners. For instance, they would be responsible for their partner's debts.
In 1999 California became the first state in the country to allow gay and lesbian couples and elderly heterosexual couples to register as domestic partners. Since then more than 22,000 couples have signed up with the secretary of state. Two years ago the state legislature passed a bill giving domestic partners approximately a dozen rights, including the right to make medical decisions for incapacitated partners, to sue for a partner's wrongful death, and to adopt a partner's child.