Registered domestic partners in California would have many of the same rights and responsibilities as married couples under a landmark bill approved by the state senate that Gov. Gray Davis has already signaled he plans to sign. The bill, by lesbian assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, would give registered domestic partners the ability to ask for child support and alimony, the right to health coverage under a partner's plan, and the ability to make funeral arrangements for a partner. The legislation, passed Thursday, would put California on par with Vermont in the rights afforded to gay and lesbian couples, gay rights activists have said.
Opponents say it is an attempt to allow gay marriages and would conflict with Proposition 22, a 2000 ballot measure that defined marriage as applying only to a man and a woman.
"I wish to hell it was a marriage bill," countered lesbian senator Sheila Kuehl. "I wish Barbara and I could get married...but this is about adding a few benefits and responsibilities to the domestic-partner law."
The bill, also known as the Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act, was approved 23-14. It now returns to the assembly for approval of senate amendments, which included removing a provision that would have allowed joint filing of state income taxes.
Opponents, such as Sen. Pete Knight, said the bill puts "the state in the position of promoting a same-sex marriage" and undermines the initiative, which is also known as the Defense of Marriage Act.
Sen. Kevin Murray disagreed, saying the legislation simply clarifies the obligations and responsibilities of domestic partners. "This is a simple way for two people, who, whether you like it or not, have a family and are raising children, to manage their family to the best of their abilities," Murray said.
In 1999, California became the first state to allow gay and lesbian couples as well as elderly couples to register as domestic partners. Two years ago the legislature passed a measure providing registered couples about a dozen rights previously available only to heterosexual spouses or next of kin, 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.
Goldberg's measure expands the law by extending to the more than 22,000 registered same-sex couples every other marriage-based entitlement that could be amended under state law without approval by two thirds of the legislature. 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 to make funeral arrangements.
The bill also extends responsibilities to couples registered as domestic partners. They 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 interest.