This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
An everything-but-marriage bill would scour state law for the smaller benefits and responsibilities denied same-sex couples.
In the law, there are sweeping, fundamental rights that shape people’s lives, and then there are the small privileges that simply make life more bearable.
Washington’s incremental march toward fair treatment for same-sex couples has scored big gains in the latter category over the last two years. They’ve won legal recognition of domestic partnerships, the right to be at their partners’ sick beds, protection under domestic violence laws and acknowledgment of community property, among others.
Now gay-rights supporters are back with an everything-but-marriage bill that would extend to registered domestic partners every benefit and responsibility now offered to heterosexual married spouses.
The 100-page bill would add domestic partners to state laws ranging from labor and employment to pensions and other public employee benefits.
A few of the benefits granted by this legislation are biggies – business succession rights and the ability to use sick leave to care for a partner to name two.
But otherwise the bill is remarkable for its breadth, not its particulars. Life is filled with niggling little details that never get a second thought until they become problems. So is Washington state law.
Take, for example, the case of a financially distressed property owner who gets a deferral on the fees he must pay for a local improvement district in his neighborhood. Should he die, that deferral transfers to his wife. Not so if his partner is a man.
There are hundreds of state statutes that employ what once was a catchall word: spouse. Many were written long before nonconventional families were common and certainly before domestic partnership was a legal alternative.
Not all are benefits. With the perks of marriage come responsibilities, and the same should be true of domestic partnerships.
Washington can bill a husband for his wife’s stay at a state mental hospital. State law does not place the same burden on same-sex partners, despite the fact that their finances may be commingled just as much as the heterosexual couple’s.
There are two lingering areas of concern for this editorial board. One is the possible effect on state child-placement policies that may give too little weight to the benefits of having both a father or a mother in a child’s life. The State of Washington may have already crossed that bridge, however.
Another set of concerns focuses on the potential effects on religious groups that oppose homosexuality on moral grounds. Opponents often point to a case in Massachusetts in which the Roman Catholic Church was prevented from considering the sexualities of would-be parents when placing children in adoptive homes. The church was effectively forced out of the adoption business.
But the Massachusetts’ case involved court-mandated gay marriage rights, not a legislated domestic partnership policy. We believe the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause will ultimately trump state interference with genuine religious freedoms.
This domestic-partnership bill is about civil rights and fairness. Washington is already well down the road to providing committed gay couples many of the same legal protections that heterosexual couples access through marriage. The Legislature should finish the job.