The Washington state Senate on Thursday passed a bill that would create domestic partnerships for same-sex couples, over the objections of lawmakers who argued that the measure is a threat to traditional marriage.
The bill passed on a 28-19 vote, with two lawmakers excused. It now heads to the House. Gov. Chris Gregoire is expected to sign the measure if it gets to her desk.
"From time to time, an issue comes before this body that is both political and intensely personal," said Sen. Ed Murray, a Seattle Democrat who sponsored the measure and is one of five openly gay lawmakers in the Legislature. "For thousands, for tens of thousands of lesbian and gay families throughout the state of Washington, this is one of those issues.
"For us, nothing is as important as our family," he said.
The bill would create a domestic partnership registry with the state, and would provide enhanced rights for same-sex couples, including hospital visitation, the ability to authorize autopsies and organ donations, and inheritance rights when there is no will.
To be registered, couples would have to share a home, not be married or in a domestic relationship with someone else, and be at least 18 years old.
Similar to California law, unmarried, heterosexual senior couples would also be eligible for domestic partnerships if one partner were at least 62. Lawmakers said that provision was included to help seniors who are at risk of losing pension rights and Social Security benefits if they remarry.
But some lawmakers argued that provision made the bill a case of reverse discrimination, and that it should be amended to include all people who care for others, including grandparents and siblings.
"Why can't it be for everyone?" asked an emotional Sen. Marilyn Rasmussen, D-Eatonville, who broke from her caucus and voted against the measure.
Three other Democrats also crossed over and voted against domestic partnerships: Sens. Tim Sheldon of Shelton, Brian Hatfield of Raymond and Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam.
The lone Republican to vote for the bill was Sen. Dale Brandland of Bellingham. He didn't speak to his vote during the floor debate but later said he was affected by the story of Kathryn Fleming, who died in December after she became trapped by rising water in her basement studio in Seattle.
Her partner, Charlene Strong, told lawmakers during public hearings about how she was initially barred from the hospital room and later encountered obstacles in trying to donate Fleming's retinas and in planning the funeral.
"I started thinking about my law enforcement career and people that I know, and I started thinking to myself how would I like that if one of those people got injured and their domestic partner couldn't get up to see them," Brandland said. "I just couldn't do that."
The Senate rejected an amendment put forth by Republicans that would have required a public vote before the legislation took effect.
The move by the Legislature comes nearly a year after the state Supreme Court upheld Washington's ban on same-sex marriage in a 5-4 decision, ruling that state lawmakers were justified in passing the 1998 Defense of Marriage Act, which restricts marriage to unions between a man and woman.
"You have prevented us from marrying. Please do not prevent us from caring for each other," Murray said during the floor debate.
A constitutional amendment this year to affirm traditional marriage offered by Republican lawmakers died in committee this week.
Murray previously spearheaded a gay civil-rights bill that became law last year after nearly 30 years of failure in the Legislature. That measure added "sexual orientation" to a state law that bans discrimination in housing, employment, insurance and credit on the basis of such characteristics as race and religion. Another measure introduced by Murray this year that would have allowed same-sex marriage died in committee Wednesday.
Opponents said the domestic partnership bill is just another step toward same-sex marriage.
"We have watched this incremental movement as it has slowly eroded the sanctity of marriage," said Sen. Val Stevens, R-Arlington. "This bill isn't about civil rights. It's about changing society in ways that will ultimately harm it."
In December, New Jersey adopted civil unions for same-sex couples, joining Connecticut and Vermont. Massachusetts allows gay couples to marry, while California has domestic partnerships that bring full marriage rights. Hawaii has a reciprocal benefits law that gives same-sex partners some rights, in areas of insurance, property, pension and hospital visitation.
Domestic partnership bill
Washington state lawmakers are considering a measure that would provide enhanced rights for same-sex couples and unmarried, senior heterosexual couples. The measure would create domestic partnerships, which would be registered with the secretary of state.
The rights granted to registered domestic partners would include:
Health-care facility visitation rights.
Ability to grant consent for health care for a partner who is not competent. Health care providers could disclose patient information to the patient's partner.
Automatic revocation of a domestic partner as the beneficiary for nonprobate assets if the partnership ends.
Automatic revocation of power of attorney granted to a domestic partner if the partnership ends.
Title and rights to cemetery plots and rights of interment.
Right to control disposition of a deceased partner's remains, including right to make anatomical gifts, authorize autopsies, and consent to remove partner's remains from a cemetery plot.
Inheritance rights when the domestic partner dies without a will.
Administration of an estate if the domestic partner dies without a will or if the named representative declines or is unable to serve.
Making domestic partners beneficiaries of wrongful-death actions. Lawsuits for wrongful death could be brought on behalf of a surviving domestic partner.
Requiring that information recorded on death certificates include domestic partnership status.
Two individuals seeking to enter into a state-registered domestic partnership would have to:
Share a residence.
Be at least 18 years old.
Be unmarried and not already in a state-registered domestic partnership with somebody else.
Be capable of consenting to the partnership.
Not be nearer of kin than second cousins nor be a sibling, child, grandchild, aunt, uncle, niece, or nephew to the other person.
Be members of the same sex, or one of the persons must be at least 62 years of age.