Friday, October 9, 2009

Now is not the time to eliminate domestic partnership in the District of Columbia

The bill authorizing same-sex marriages in the District of Columbia contains a disturbing additional provision that has gotten little attention. It eliminates any new domestic partnerships as of January 1, 2011. I don’t know why Councilmember David Catania wrote this into the legislation, but I do hope he will reconsider in light of the history of domestic partnership in DC and its eligibility criteria.

Domestic partnership in DC was never about providing a legal status to same-sex couples based on their exclusion from marriage. Different-sex couples are allowed to register, and of course they have always been able to marry. In addition, domestic partnership is available to any two people living together in a “committed familial relationship.” It is open to relatives who are unable to marry. It means, for example, that a grandmother and grandson can be domestic partners, assuming that they live together and have no other domestic partner or spouse. That way, if he now works for the DC government, she is eligible for his health insurance benefits in the same way an employee’s spouse is eligible.

The criteria were the product of deliberate decisions to broaden the definition of relationships that count for legal purposes and to cease making marriage the exclusive means of obtaining important legal benefits.

I do think that once same-sex couples can marry in DC it will make sense to reevaluate what legal status we make available to other relationships. In addition to considering retaining domestic partnerships, I’d like a robust discussion of enacting a status such as Colorado’s “designated beneficiary.” I’d also like us to consider the test for benefit eligibility that Salt Lake City affords its employees – any one adult with whom the employee lives in an interdependent relationship and that person’s children.

In addition, there is a reason to maintain domestic partnerships even if one considers only legal protections for same-sex couples. There are states that will recognize another state’s domestic partnership or civil union but will not recognize same-sex marriages. Eliminating domestic partnerships in DC leaves such couples more vulnerable, not less, in other parts of the country.

We could hash all this out now, but I suggest we take this process one step at a time. Let the marriage bill be considered on its own merits. Once it becomes law, let’s think through other relationship recognition issues. That means the provision eliminating domestic partnership should come out of the Catania bill. I hope Councilmember Catania will agree with this proposal and that Phil Mendelson’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee will make it happen.