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Washington may grant rights to same-sex couples

Sean Cockerham
McClatchy Newspapers

TACOMA, Wash. - While efforts to legalize gay marriage have fizzled, the Washington Legislature is poised to give same-sex couples some of the same legal rights as married people.

The "domestic partnership" bill has cleared policy committees in the Senate and House, and the leader of an opposition group called Positive Christian Agenda conceded the measure can't be stopped.

The bill would give gays, lesbians and unmarried seniors rights to visit a partner in the hospital, inherit property when there's no will, and make decisions on such matters as emergency health care and funeral arrangements.

"It's not the ability to marry that we would have wanted. But it is a step in the right direction," said Kathy Cunningham, who fought unsuccessfully in court to marry her partner of more than a dozen years.

"I believe we have enough votes to pass it," said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, a Spokane Democrat who supports the proposal.

There's little doubt the bill will pass the House as well. More than half of the House members have signed on as co-sponsors. The measures are House Bill 1351 and Senate Bill 5336.

Earlier this month, legislators heard emotional testimony from the partner of Kate Fleming, an audio book narrator from Seattle who drowned when floodwaters from the December storm trapped her in the basement of her home.

Her partner of 10 years, Charlene Strong, told how she tried to save Fleming and then rushed to Harborview Medical Center to be with her. But Strong said she was turned away from the hospital room because she and Fleming weren't married.

"I kept wondering if Kate might die without me telling her that I loved her," Strong said.

Strong said she had to get permission from Fleming's family in Virginia before finally making it to her partner's side before her death.

Laurie Jinkins said she and her partner have filled out legal paperwork to make sure they already have rights to make care-giving decisions for one another. But Jinkins said it took time, energy, and money to do so.

"Married couples don't have to do that," Jinkins said.

Jinkins said the bill is just about basic family rights.

But opponents of the domestic partnership bill argue it gives same-sex partners some rights that siblings, for example, don't have. They said the measure is a major step that would ultimately lead to the legalization of gay marriage.

"First you pass this, then you sue in court and get gay marriage," said Joseph Fuiten, a pastor who leads the group Positive Christian Agenda. "The Democrats control it all and they are quite beholden to the homosexuals."

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

Last July, the Washington state Supreme Court upheld the state's ban on same-sex marriage in a 5-4 decision. The court ruled that the Legislature was justified in passing the 1998 Defense of Marriage Act, which restricts marriage to between a man and a woman.

Cunningham, who was a plaintiff in that case, said she's not sure what the next step is in achieving the right to marry her partner.

"I don't see it happening real soon," she said.

State Sen. Dan Swecker, a Republican, wants to make sure it doesn't by amending the state Constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Swecker also said the domestic partnership bill "starts lowering the bar on commitment" and should be required to go for a statewide vote.

Swecker's proposals, though, don't have enough support to pass the Legislature at this point.

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HOW IT WORKS

The bill would set up a state registry of domestic partnerships that would be kept at the secretary of state's office.

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 qualify.

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

So why don't lawmakers offer the registry to all age groups? The argument is that heterosexuals can choose to get married and get rights, but gays don't have that choice.

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