Anti–Gay Partnership Referendum Unlikely

Opponents of new comprehensive benefits falter, look to legal, constitutional routes

In what looks like a major defeat for opponents of gay rights in California, the Campaign for California Families missed a key filing deadline in its campaign to roll back the state’s new domestic partnership law, AB 205.

The group had taken out referendum papers to overturn the new law, but 375,000 signatures to qualify for the March ballot were due on December 4. They didn’t submit any. They still have until December 21, 90 days after then-Governor Gray Davis signed the bill, to qualify their rollback effort for the November ballot. But according to David Orosco, a spokesperson for State Senator William “Pete” Knight (R-Palmdale), the group has not been collecting signatures at all.

“The effort did not go beyond filing with the Secretary of State’s office,” Orosco said. The bill, which Davis signed into law in an ebullient ceremony at San Francisco’s LGBT Community Center in September, would give California’s domestic partners the same rights as married couples under state law, except for joint filing of tax returns and all the federal rights that marriage conveys.

Instead, Orosco said, opponents will rely on legal challenges they filed the week after Davis signed the law. The plaintiffs in the lawsuits, Knight in one case and the Campaign for California Families in another, argue that the bill is actually marriage by another name and so violates California’s Proposition 22, which states that marriage is between a man and a woman.

“It’s semantics, simply semantics,” said Orosco. Randy Thamasson, head of the Campaign for California Families, called the distinction “games with words,” and said the bill is “homosexual marriage by another name.”

But gay rights advocates say the wording of the bill was carefully vetted by the state’s legislative counsel, in anticipation of just such a legal challenge, and say it will pass judicial muster. The state moved to dismiss the suit, and the first hearing in that action is currently scheduled for December 17.

The lawsuits have gay rights advocates screaming foul because, they say, during the year 2000 campaign to pass Proposition 22, Knight’s group claimed it would not affect domestic partnership rights. Proposition 22 “does not take away anyone’s right to inheritance or hospital visitation,” read a campaign mailer. But both of those rights are addressed in the bill Davis signed.

Gay rights groups, especially Equality California, the state’s gay rights lobby, had geared up for a referendum fight. Equality California had provided $25,000 in seed funding for a political action committee to lead the opposition, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Human Rights Coalition followed suit with similar amounts.

“We’re sitting here, ready to go if it does end up on the November ballot,” said Equality California spokesperson Toni Broaddus. But even if it doesn’t, they intend to do the work anyway, because gay rights advocates fear that anti-gay groups will take up a more serious initiative––a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Proposition 22 is written into California’s family code, but, according to San Francisco’s gay Assemblymember Mark Leno, if included in the state’s constitution, the same-sex marriage ban would be virtually unassailable.

“Rather than spin their wheels on 205, they could put the same effort towards a constitutional amendment,” Leno said. “With that they would preempt our ever moving forward with gay marriage.”

—JOE DIGNAN

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