Friday, January 30, 2009

Legislature announces plan to extend full marriage benefits to domestic partnerships

Olympia – In front of a crowd of more than 30 legislators, supporters and families of same sex couples Wednesday afternoon, state Sen. Ed Murray (D-Seattle) announced the introduction of Senate and House bills that would expand full state marriage rights to domestic partners, but would stop short of calling the relationships marriages in the eyes of the state.

The House bill has 57 sponsors out of 98 total Representatives, including two Republicans, Maureen Walsh (R-College Place) and Norm Johnson (R-Yakima), and the Senate offering has 20 sponsors from the body’s 49 members.

No Republican Senators, however, found the cause worthy of sponsorship.

The pair of bills would add over 300 rights and obligations for domestic partnerships ranging from survivor and pension benefits to business license transfers, which Rep. Jamie Pederson (D-Seattle), the chief sponsor of the House bill, said would “make sure our families are treated exactly the same.”

Still, even if the state legislation passes, certain same sex couples will lack some Federal benefits until President Obama makes good on his promise to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.

Besides the usual measure of equality and long-time-coming, the legislators also took time today to frame the issue in terms of the sour economy.

“Families across this nation feel more and more insecure. If there was at theme for this session,” Murray said, “it would be family economic security.”

Extending crucial benefits to families of same-sex couples, the implication suggests, is even more important now than it was before. He said now is the time that there needs to be a conversation about the concrete ways that families of same sex couples are harmed because they lack the same benefits as heterosexual couples.

To help hammer home the need for domestic partnership benefit rights, four same-sex couples, half of them with young children in tow, spoke about their feelings of going through everyday life not only with the hardships that come from improper benefits, but the stigma that their families, especially their children, have from being excluded.

It was a regular all-American display, with one of the couples’ nine year old daughter doing her best Piper Palin turn, struggling to hold onto her baby sister as she stood beside her mother at the podium.

Another couple, both of whom hold PhDs from the University of Washington, informed the reporters that their elementary school aged daughter was “just coming to terms with the fact that our family doesn’t have the same recognition and rights that her friends’ families do, and it is confusing to her.”

Then there was the Tacoma police officer who grew emotional while reminding those gathered that she faces the same dangers on the streets each day as her straight co-workers, yet she is saddled with the additional stress of knowing that if anything happened to her, only now, with the help of this bill, would her partner receive the full spousal benefits she deserved.

Those blatant displays of humanity aside, Murray commented that one of the aspects most worthy of celebration with the announcement of these bills was the relative lack of fanfare from the other side.

“I would say the most remarkable thing about this bill is that it is unremarkable,” Murray mentioned, explaining that many of the fiercely fought battles that had been fought in the last few decades were inconspicuously absent from today’s atmosphere, even resulting in the aforementioned Republican sponsors of the House bill.

“Instead of culture wars,” Murray said, “we see a legislature that is mostly on board.”

But if the atmosphere is so good, and domestic partnerships are such a no-brainer these days, why not just go all in and join the ranks of Massachusetts and Connecticut, the two states who currently recognize gay marriage?

The lawmakers answered this question in part by passing the buck to a public that they said, outside of the greater Seattle area, was still coming to terms with gay rights.

“We are involved in a conversation with the people of this state,” Murray said. “It is still new to a lot of people in this state.”

Plus, there will be the matter of initiative battles like the recent Proposition 8 that rocked the civil rights world in California this past year.

“On a personal level, it is kind of amazing what the opposition is willing to do,” Murray said, implying that the supporters of gay marriage intend to swing with a knockout blow when they finally push for full equality. “We know that there will be an initiative at some point. We are preparing ourselves for that battle…We plan to win. We don’t plan to win and then lose.”

Despite this ongoing conversation, Rep. Jim Moeller (D-Vancouver) will be introducing a bill in the House this session, H.B. 1745, that would bring full civil marriage rights to same sex couples in common with their fellow heterosexual citizens.

“There is nothing more personal than the decision between two human beings who make the decision to be committed to one another,” Moeller said and compared the issue to private entities that know that “discrimination is no way to run a business. What we know is what we have always known for a long time, that separate is not equal.”

That bill has 40 sponsors already, including Republican Walsh, yet it won’t be considered in committee.

All part of the process, co-sponsor Rep. Marko Liias (D-Mukilteo) assured me later Wednesday afternoon.

“That’s where the conversation is centered right now,” Liias said, echoing Murray’s sentiment from earlier in the day. “Not everyone who needs to be part of the process is ready to go there right now. There isn’t quite the consensus we need.”

Liias also gave some recommendations for gay marriage’s staunch advocates.

“Get out there and start doing the community organization,” he advised, “and get folks to start writing in from all over the state. Those folks need to start speaking to their friends and neighbors.”

Even if the legislature stops short by simply adding domestic partnership benefits, Sen. Murray predicted today that it won’t be long.

“It will take some years,” he said, “but it will not take the 29 years that the civil rights bill took. It is a multi-year effort, but not a multi-decade effort.”

Cross-posted on HA Seattle

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