Tuesday, October 27, 2009

It's looking good for removing the domestic partner "sunset" provision from the DC marriage equality bill

If I were a betting woman, I'd say there will be no mention of ending domestic partnership in the marriage equality bill that goes through the DC City Council.

The first panel of witnesses at yesterday's hearing on marriage equality in DC included Bob Summersgill and Rick Rosendall, the two people most responsible for strengthening the domestic partnership laws in DC during this decade. Both testified that domestic partnerships should not be eliminated in this bill. In response to a question from Council Member Muriel Bowser about whether domestic partnership should be ended, Bob Summersgill said "not now" and also that we should think carefully about taking a status away from people who can’t marry even after this bill. Rick Rosendall made a point of saying that there was no rift between his position and that of Council Member Catania, that the two of them had chatted, and that both support equality for all DC families.

The issue came up later in the questioning of Michele Zavos, a long-time practicing attorney in DC who probably has had more gay and lesbian clients in family law matters than anyone in the city. (Hey, she was my lawyer when I adopted my daughter 26 years ago!) Michele testified passionately about the desire of her clients to marry where they live rather than in distant states and about the lesser legitimacy many attach to domestic partnership. She also expressed her own outrage that her 24 year old daughter could marry her boyfriend but she (Michele) could not marry the partner who had cared for her through two bouts of cancer. When CM Bowser asked her about domestic partnership, Michele also said the Council should wait on this, and she noted the history of marriage as an institution that oppressed women and the importance of providing a alternative choice.

At this point, the bill's chief sponsor, Council Member David Catania, did express his willingness to wait on the domestic partnership issue, but he also put on the record some statistics about the tiny number of different-sex couples who have registered in the places he stated were the three jurisdictions permitting such registration -- DC, Maine, and Hawaii. I'm thrilled to hear that he's willing to address domestic partnership at a later time, and hopefully I'll have a chance to discuss with him the numbers he put on the record. First, Hawaii doesn't allow different-sex couples to register at all, so I truly don't know how he could have statistics about how many different-sex couples have registered! Hawaii extends its reciprocal beneficiary status only to those who cannot marry. So the only different-sex persons who can register are relatives prohibited by incest laws from marrying each other. But neither CM Catania nor CM Bowser seemed to know that our DP law extends to "non-couples," including relatives. I mean maybe they do know it, but all either of them referred to was same-sex and different-sex couples. (CM Catania also missed a number of other places that allow registration beyond same-sex couples, all of which I listed in my testimony).

Committee chair Phil Mendelson suggested to Michele Zavos that he sees domestic partnership as like a contractual relationship and that the question for him was whether we wanted to have a relationship defined in that way. For me, it was an interesting window into what he might be thinking. Colorado's designated beneficiary relationship is more akin to a contract than a typical domestic partnership, so maybe DC will move in that direction once we have marriage equality. In any event it seemed unlikely that CM Mendelson would want to address domestic partnership in this bill.

Which gets me to my testimony. CM Bowser left in the middle of the panel before mine. I popped up as I saw her gather her things and handed her a copy of my testimony with a quick comment that it was about the DP issue. I'll try to follow up with her. CM Catania was there while I testified but asked nothing; neither did CM Mendelson. It was well passed 7 pm and they were only halfway through the witness list, so I certainly didn't take it personally.

Plus I'm thrilled to see that the AP report on the hearing notes the opposition to ending domestic partnership at this time and CM Catania's willingness to reconsider this issue.

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