Washington gives domestic partnership rights to gay couples

by Sean Cockerham

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

22 April 2007


TACOMA, Wash. - Amid happy tears and rounds of applause, Gov. Chris Gregoire on Saturday signed into law a bill that grants same-sex couples some of the same rights as married people.

“This is a very good moment for me,” the Democratic governor told a crowd packed into the ornate marbled state reception room in Olympia.

The state law will take effect in 90 days. It gives gays, lesbians and unmarried seniors rights to visit a partner in the hospital, inherit property when there’s no will, and make decisions on matters like emergency health care, funeral arrangements and disposition of remains. Domestic partners are to register with the secretary of state’s office to qualify for the rights.

“I’m delighted,” said 70-year-old John McCluskey of Tacoma. “I don’t want my family making decisions when my time comes, if Rudy is still around. He is my partner. We have committed our lives together.”

McCluskey said he and his partner, Rudy Henry are about to celebrate 48 years of living together. Once, in 1985, McCluskey said he was rushed to Tacoma General Hospital with chest pains. He said his partner didn’t have rights to find out what was going on.

“He was quite distraught, because he couldn’t see me and couldn’t find out anything,” McCluskey said.

Opponents of the bill said it will lead to legalizing gay marriage in this state. Cle Elum Republican Rep. Bill Hinkle said the Legislature is “chipping away at the very foundations of this institution and of society.”

Lawmakers opposed to the bill also said most of the rights granted in it can already be acquired through power of attorney or other contract.

The group Positive Christian Agenda, led by pastor Joseph Fuiten, tried hard to kill the bill. Fuiten on Saturday called it a blow to marriage and an unwise social experiment being forced on an unwilling public.

His group sent an email to its supporters two weeks ago saying the measure would likely pass the House in the dark of night so Democrats could mask their “dirty deeds” from the public.

The group sent another email Tuesday conceding House leaders didn’t wait until nighttime.

“Rather, they lead their Democratic caucus in voting, unashamedly, in broad daylight, to undermine marriage,” said the group’s email message.

Legal same-sex marriage doesn’t appear imminent in this state. The Legislature passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1998, defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The Washington Supreme Court upheld the law last summer and a bill to overturn it did not even get a hearing in the Legislature this year.

But the sponsors of the domestic partnership bill weren’t shy about saying they do see it as the first step toward legal same-sex marriage. State Sen. Ed Murray, a Democrat from Seattle, said as the governor signed the bill Saturday that it is a “beginning and not an end.”

Michael Jensen of Tacoma said he hopes the new law will raise awareness about the lack of same-sex couple’s rights. Even with its passage, he said, married people will still have vastly more rights than gay and lesbian couples. Such rights include tax benefits, assumption of a spouses’ Social Security benefits and the right not to testify against a spouse in court.

Jensen, who just celebrated his 15th anniversary with his partner, said he thinks public sentiment will turn to the point where people think it’s ridiculous same-sex couples aren’t entitled to the rights of people allowed to marry.

In the meantime, he said, the domestic partnership bill the governor signed Saturday is valuable. Jensen said he and his partner don’t carry their power of attorney papers wherever they go, and something like a car accident can happen to one of them at any time.

“I think this is a great first step,” Jensen said. “It is long overdue. It’s something certainly my partner and I plan on taking advantage of.”

The secretary of state’s office has to work out the details of how couples can get on the domestic partnership registry. But the bill says they must file a notarized declaration of their partnership with the office and pay a filing fee of not more than $50.

Same-sex couples would have to be at least 18 years old, share a home and not be married or in another domestic partnership to be on the registry.

Heterosexual partners would also be eligible if one partner were at least 62. Bill supporters say seniors were included because some choose not to remarry after a spouse dies because of the possibility of losing pension and Social Security benefits.

California, Maine, New Jersey, Hawaii and the District of Columbia already have domestic partner registries, according to Lambda Legal, the national gay rights group.

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