Sturdy Partnership Law Takes Effect

California now offers gay, lesbian couples strongest protections outside Massachusetts

California’s new domestic partnership law went into effect on Sunday, and the rules quietly move the state’s gay couples closer to marriage than any other state in the union outside of Massachusetts, according to West Coast gay and lesbian advocates.

California’s domestic partners now have the same rights as heterosexual couples under state law except the right to file joint tax returns. While California’s domestic partnership registry has been in operation since 1999, the new law, called AB 205, transforms what one of the advocates called “a legal valentine,” into a stern contract. The couples will now have access to the state’s family court system to settle disputes in the same way as married couples. They will be responsible for one another’s debts and the richer of the pair may be liable for support.

Vermont’s gay couples with civil unions may file joint tax returns, but advocates, like the head of the state’s gay rights lobby Geoff Kors, say that California’s laws give stronger protections for children born during the partnership by making both members of the couple responsible for them.

However, the federal government does not recognize the unions, so the couples don’t get Social Security benefits, the federal income tax savings for which married couples are eligible or the right to sponsor their partners for residency in the US, among other federal benefits.

The bill squeaked out of the state Assembly by a single vote in September 2003 and was signed by then-Gov. Gray Davis. At the signing ceremony lesbian state legislator Carole Migden proclaimed straight Davis, who is straight, to be “our first gay governor,” but now the bill has been eclipsed by efforts to secure gay marriage in the state. Polling shows that an overwhelming majority, about 70 percent, of Californians say gay men and lesbians should have some legal recognition of their relationships.

Unlike Massachusetts and Vermont, California’s statute was initiated by the Legislature, not forced by the courts. Marriage was won in Massachusetts in a 2003 ruling by that state’s Supreme Judicial Court, and the Vermont Legislature enacted civil unions in 2000 in response to a 1999 mandate from its Supreme Court.

“That’s what makes it really unique, we have the people’s support,” said Kors.

Fundamentalist groups are still appealing the law’s implementation in court, saying that it violates the state’s year 2000 Proposition 22 which prohibits California from recognizing same-sex marriages from other states. Advocates say that Proposition 22 applies only to marriage, which they say AB 205 is not, and then only to out-of-state marriages, not those made in California. A trial judge, who agreed with the advocates in a recent ruling, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Loren E. McMaster, is facing a recall drive.

“But it’s so last year,” joked Kors, whose group, Equality California, was the lead sponsor of the bill. Now California’s Legislature is considering a measure by Mark Leno, a San Francisco assemblyman who is gay, which would legalize gay marriage in the state. A case challenging the constitutionality of California’s heterosexual-only marriage statutes has also begun its journey through the state court system.

“Back then, I didn’t know I’d be willing to go to war over a word,” said Leno, recalling the electric charge San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom gave California gay advocates early last year when he initiated same-sex marriages before being stopped by the state courts. “Now it’s all different.”

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