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House OKs partners bill

OLYMPIA – In what proponents called a victory for compassion, the state House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to grant same-sex couples some of the legal rights and protections that married couples get automatically.

Senate Bill 5336 now goes to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who is expected to sign it into law. Washington would become the sixth state to give some spousal rights to same-sex partners.

Democratic supporters of the bill hugged on the House floor moments after the 63-35 vote, mostly along party lines. The law would take effect 90 days after the governor signs it.

“As someone who just celebrated her 28th anniversary, I’m pretty thrilled,” said retired teacher Bonnie Aspen, who is a lesbian, in Spokane. “The day that becomes law, we will go sign up.”

Critics – mostly Republicans – said that domestic partnerships are clearly a steppingstone toward same-sex marriage. Many fear that traditional marriage is already a struggling institution.

“I beg of you to think very seriously about the road that we are going down, and about how we are going to be changing our civilization from here on in,” Rep. Lynn Schindler, R-Otis Orchards, told fellow House members.

“This is really a sad day,” said Rep. John Ahern, R-Spokane.

“Barring earthquakes, famines or lightning strikes – and we’re praying for any of the above – it will most likely pass,” Christian Coalition of Washington executive director Rick Forcier said in the hours leading up to Tuesday’s vote.

Under the bill, domestic partnerships would also be available to heterosexuals 62 or older, a provision aimed at widows and widowers who cannot remarry for fear of losing a dead spouse’s pension or Social Security payments.

“It’s not marriage,” said Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, one of the state’s five openly gay state lawmakers. “But it does provide for some of the rights and obligations that we ask people to undertake when they’re in loving relationships recognized by the state.”

Not included in the legislation, for example, is a requirement that insurance companies extend coverage to same-sex partners.

Pedersen and several other lawmakers readily acknowledge that same-sex marriage remains the goal.

“Each year, we will be back to add more of those rights and protections until the public understands that it’s only fair to allow gay and lesbian people to marry,” Pedersen said Tuesday evening.

Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said that supporters of same-sex marriage need to move slowly to avoid a conservative backlash.

“People aren’t going to change their minds overnight on this issue, and we need to respect that,” said Moeller, who is gay. “We need to bring them along. And that’s what we’re doing, one step at a time.”

The bill passed Tuesday requires Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed to launch a registry for unmarried domestic partners. To qualify, they must live together, be at least 18 years old and not be close blood relatives. They also must be of the same sex or, if heterosexual, at least 62 years old.

Once signed up, they would get numerous spouse-type rights, including:

•visitation rights at health care facilities,

•the ability to consent to medical procedures for an incapacitated partner,

•rights to cemetery plots, autopsy decisions and organ donation,

•and inheritance rights if the partner dies with no will.

Republicans say many of those rights are available to any couple, gay or straight, through legal agreements. But Democrats say that’s an expensive and complex step. For domestic partners, the rights would be automatic.

In Spokane, Aspen said that she and her partner of 28 years, Willow Williams, spent thousands of dollars to have a 4-inch-thick sheaf of legal documents drawn up – and that she’s still uncertain that another state would honor them. Aspen said she saw a friend in the Midwest forced to pay inheritance taxes on a home he’d shared with his partner for years. And she said another friend in New Mexico was nearly shut out of caring for her partner, dying of bone cancer.

Aspen thinks same-sex marriage is inevitable. She compares it to past laws – long since declared unconstitutional – banning interracial marriage.

“I believe in 15 to 20 years we will be equally embarrassed as a country” by the current laws limiting marriage to a man and woman, Aspen said.

One of the most vocal opponents of the bill, Bothell pastor Joe Fuiten, said Tuesday that the Legislature’s Democratic majority is overreaching. Most Washingtonians, he maintains, are unsupportive of either same-sex marriage or domestic partnerships.

“This is a casualty of the war in Iraq,” Fuiten said of Tuesday’s vote. “How did we get so many Democrats down there (in Olympia)? It was a reaction to President Bush and the war in Iraq.

“The Democrats are misreading it,” he said. “They’re thinking that people want them to pursue this Democrat agenda, but it’s not true. People don’t support this radical agenda.”

He and Forcier both said that a referendum – in which citizens try to gather enough signatures to force a statewide vote on a bill – is possible. But both sounded more focused on trying to get more social conservatives elected in 2008.

In Spokane, Aspen predicts that public acceptance of same-sex marriage will grow as people become more comfortable with openly gay neighbors and co-workers.

“I think this is exactly the right path,” she said of the domestic partnership registry. If lawmakers had voted Tuesday to allow same-sex marriage, she said, it would have triggered a years-long court fight.

“It’s like the saying about ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ ” she said. “One bite at a time.”

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