Friday, December 09, 2005

D.C.'s new domestic partner law

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From the Washington Blade "Blade Blog" The poison pill in D.C.'s D.P. bill By Chris Crain, Executive Editor. Dec. 8, 2005. 3:39am. The truly sweeping social reform backed this week by the D.C. Council wasn't the ban on smoking in bars and nightclubs, even though it grabbed all the headlines. By the time the smoking ban takes effect, in January 2007, the District will trail far behind other major cities, and even its own suburbs, in that long overdue health regulation. The real news this week was the unanimous Council vote for the Domestic Partnership Equality Act of 2005, which extends to same-sex couples many of the basic rights and obligations of traditional marriage, including alimony, child support and inheritance rights. After years of tip-toeing to equality, doling out symbolic support and obscure tax benefits to gay couples so as not to incur the wrath of Daddy Congress, the D.P. Equality Act represents a true step forward for the District, if not the "giant leap" of full marriage equality. Many gay Washingtonians remain deeply disappointed that D.C. hasn't taken the bold step of opening up marriage to gay couples, especially since a majority of the Council and the mayor are on record in support. (But note that "gay-friendly" Carol Schwartz and Linda Cropp aren't "ready yet" for gay marriage, whatever that means.) If they passed a gay marriage bill, the District's duly elected representatives would, in one vote, put the lie to all that empty Republican rhetoric about gay marriage being "imposed" by "activist judges." All that talk is really a nice wrapper to hide the underlying prejudice that our relationships aren't equal to straight relationships. What a Christmas present it would be for someone to rip away that bow! If Congress then went on to veto a D.C. marriage law, it would be an "activist Congress," which includes no voting representatives from the District, that is "imposing" its view of marriage on us. California, our most populous state, came achingly close earlier this year to enacting gay marriage by legislation, blocked only by a veto from the Governator. If the D.C. Council and the mayor want to be trailblazers, the path is almost already cleared for them. But for some strange reason, a unanimous D.C. Council opted instead for a different kind of radical social experimentation. No, not the smoking ban or even D.P. rights for gay couples, as welcome as those are. At least four states — Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and California — already offer legal recognition for gay couples superior to that in the District's proposed legislation, and New Jersey's D.P. law comes close. The radical reform is that the D.P. Equality Act doesn't just apply to gay couples, but to unmarried heterosexual couples as well. And it goes even further, offering these core rights and obligations of traditional marriage to any two unmarried, adult blood relatives who live together. How is this possible? After years of enduring silly, insulting claims that gay rights would weaken traditional marriage and lead inevitably to legalized incest, the D.C. Council is going out of its way to prove the critics right! The District should offer domestic partner rights to gay couples as a form of interim protection and support for our relationships until that happy day when we can marry. Heterosexual couples can already marry, so offering them a domestic partnership option only preserves the imbalance. What's more, D.P. rights for straight couples really could undermine traditional marriage and tear away at our basic social fabric. For whatever well-intentioned reasons, our friends on the Council risk giving credibility to the doomsday rhetoric of the right. The D.P. bill written would offer straight couples the option of a less complicated, "marriage lite," and would allow family members to announce they are couples — on par with gay and straight romantic relationships — with claims on each other's income and children if their "partnership" be dissolved. We've seen in Europe what happens when straight couples are offered the option of "marriage lite." They take it, in droves, and most of them go on to never marry. The traditional institution of marriage is in rapid decline there as a result, and the number of children born out of wedlock has skyrocketed. Conservatives cited those scary statistics out of Europe in last year's debate over an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban gays from marrying. They disingenuously pointed the finger at gay marriage, which was adopted in some countries at about the same time as these "civil partnership" laws. Now our well-intentioned Council is walking right into the same trap, conflating an interim step toward equality for gay couples with much more radical social reform that has proven ill effects — and all without any debate, adopted unanimously this week on the Council's consent calendar. If there's a shred of credibility left for the political strategy advanced on this issue by the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance, then this debacle-in-progress should destroy it, since it's at least partially of their making. The GLAA has taken the bass-ackward position of opposing marriage equality, or even recognition of Massachusetts marriages by the District, for fear of offending Republicans in Congress who have a 30-day veto over D.C. ordinances. But GLAA has never wavered in its support for the radical overreach of the D.P. bill to include straight couples and blood relatives. So instead of enacting gay marriage, and challenging congressional conservatives to live up to their stated support for leaving the marriage issue to local, elected representatives, our Council is practically begging for intervention from Capitol Hill. Until now, GLAA's "go slow" strategy was simply too cautious, the product of an older generation of activists afraid to push too soon for true equality. But this new strategy looks more like "go slowly and then whack Congress with a big stick." There's still time to fix this mess. There are, no doubt, valid social arguments for offering heterosexual couples "marriage lite" and extending health benefits to some co-dependent blood relatives. But let's decouple those issues from each other, and more importantly from broadened legal recognition for gay couples. Our claim for equality is a matter of basic fairness and civil rights and deserves its own shot at passage, without the poison pill of radical social reform. Original source