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Domestic partners
an early focus of debate about Arizona marriage measure

Domestic partners
an early focus of debate about Arizona marriage measure

Amy Price says she and her partner, Kathy Hopkins, struggled to afford the $600 to $700 monthly cost of Hopkins's hepatitis C medication when Hopkins was covered by her private employer's health plan. "It was going to break us," Price said. "It was just an astronomical amount." If there's ever another need for that kind of treatment, the cost will be much less now that Hopkins receives domestic-partner health care benefits through Price's job as a radio installer for the city of Phoenix. But whether Phoenix and other local governments in Arizona would be able to continue to provide benefits to couples such as Price and Hopkins is an early focus of debate concerning a proposed state constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Opponents of the Protect Marriage Amendment proposed for Arizona's November 2006 ballot say employees and partners would lose their partner benefits under wording that prohibits the state and local governments from granting marriage-like "legal status" to unmarried people.

Arizona governments providing medical benefits to domestic partners include Pima County, Pima Community College, the Sunnyside and Tucson unified school districts, and the cities of Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe and Tucson.

Initiative supporters say the domestic-partner issue is a smoke screen and that the proposed 58-word measure is solely intended to protect marriage. They say the "legal status" language is meant to keep activist judges from legalizing civil unions. "What we can say at this point is that the amendment is to identify and define marriage as between one man and one woman," said Nathan Sproul, a consultant for the initiative campaign. "That is all that this is trying to accomplish."

While some Protect Marriage Arizona supporters previously said domestic partner benefits provided by governments would be prohibited, Sproul declined to explicitly state during an interview whether the amendment would affect those benefits. "Ultimately that's going to have to be up to the judicial system to figure out what the implications of the definition are," said Sproul, a Republican political operative only recently hired by the initiative campaign. However, United Families Arizona, a group belonging to the pro-amendment coalition, flatly said government-provided benefits for domestic partners would not be affected because they stem from employment, not marriage. Arizona Together, a coalition opposing the initiative, is focusing much of its early efforts on the domestic-partner benefits issue.

Accordingly, coalition members welcomed a recent Arizona State University poll that found strong opposition among registered Arizona voters toward the initiative and a ban on domestic-partner benefits offered by state and local governments. A big majority said they would oppose an amendment that would ban both same-sex marriages and domestic-partner benefits for unmarried government employees. A large number also said they would oppose a ban on just domestic-partners benefits. "That's the part that people don't like because people don't want to hurt people and take away their existing benefits," said state representative Kyrsten Sinema, a Phoenix Democrat and chairwoman of Arizona Together. "I think I give a speech about this every single day."

Sproul and Len Munsil, a leading supporter of the proposed amendment, each said the poll's findings are dubious, especially since they show a majority of those surveyed were against a ban on same-sex marriage without any reference to domestic-partner benefits. "It has marriage losing," said Munsil, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, a Scottsdale-based advocacy group. "That tells me all I need to know." The ASU poll results seem credible in light of Arizona's 2001 repeal of so-called archaic sex laws that banned cohabitation and sodomy, said Thomas Coleman, executive director of Unmarried America, a Glendale, Calif.-based nonprofit. "The direction that things are going in Arizona (is) getting a little more respectful of unmarried people," Coleman said. However, Damien McNeal, a Pima County employee whose job provides benefits for his partner, Richard McLean, said it's frightening that McLean's coverage could be in jeopardy. It would be financially devastating for the couple of 23 years because McLean, a floral designer, has a chronic medical condition that requires costly medication and that put him in the hospital last summer, McNeal said. "We're contributing members of society, and we don't want to ask for anything more than what our counterparts receive freely," McNeal said. Price said she and Hopkins "are luckier than a lot because she (Hopkins) can go back on her insurance policy from her work and hope she doesn't get sick." "If she does get sick, then we probably can't afford that," she added. (AP)

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