By Richard Roesler
SEATTLE _ In a victory for same-sex partners _ and a starting gun for social conservatives intent on a repeal _ Gov. Chris Gregoire on Monday signed into law a bill granting domestic partners most of the rights of spouses.
“They will make for stronger families, and when we have stronger families, we have a stronger Washington state,” Gregoire said.
Proponents, crowded into a Seattle community center, called it the right thing to do. The change offers more protection, such as public pension benefits, for domestic partners and their children.
The bill’s relatively easy passage this year was sharp difference from just a few years ago, when lawmakers battled furiously over gay rights legislation. Proponents of same-sex marriage see that as a promising sign that Washington will join states like Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa in letting gay and lesbian couples marry.
“Today signifies a promise kept, but it also signifies a promise we have to keep,” state Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, told the bill-signing crowd.
Church groups and conservative lawmakers are vowing to overturn the law. They’ve filed a statewide referendum on it. If they can gather the more than 120,000 signatures required by late July, the law will be suspended at least until it goes on the November ballot for voters to decide.
“At the founding of our country, we made a conscious decision to promote marriage above all other legal unions, because of the inherent value of raising children in a home with a mom and a dad,” said state Rep. Matt Shea, R-Mead. He’s one of several legislators backing Referendum 71, which would overturn the law.
Only a male and a female can create a child, he said. And it’s better for children, he says, to have both a father and a mother.
“I think males and females bring unique traits to a relationship,” he said.
For proponents, the law is a simple matter of fairness.
“It’s a good next step,” said Spokane’s Kyla Bates, a domestic partner with her partner of 22 years, Lori Rodriguez. They have a 7-year-old daughter. “Obviously, I would prefer marriage and all the legal ramifications that go along with it.”
Six years ago in Oregon, the couple found out what it’s like to lack such protections. The couple and their then-infant daughter were in a car wreck.
It was the kind of thing for which they’d prepared, spending thousands of dollars on legal paperwork to ensure that they would be able to make medical decisions for each other.
But “at the hospital, they wouldn’t let me in the emergency room with either one of them, because I didn’t have the documentation with me,” said Bates. “For us, it was a huge wakeup call.”
Washington lawmakers in 2007 approved domestic partnerships, granting hospital visitation, funeral decisions and some inheritance rights to couples who register. Same-sex couples are eligible, as are senior citizen heterosexual couples.
A year ago, when Bates and Rodriguez’s daughter was hospitalized again, things were different. Staffers treated them as two moms, with the rights to be there and make decisions for their daughter.
When their daughter was a baby, the couple worried about how the girl would be treated by playmates’ families, whether she and they would be accepted. They were pleasantly surprised. There’s never been even a hint of a problem, Bates said. Their friends and neighbors are very supportive.
“We’re a family, they’re a family,” she said.
Bates thinks that same-sex marriage is inevitable. Society as a whole isn’t quite ready for it, she said, but she believes Washington is.
She’s appalled at Referendum 71.
“I think it’s insane,” she said. “The people that think it will hurt them for us to have the same rights as them, I don’t understand their thinking. It has no impact on them whatsoever.”
Gregoire suggested Monday that she would campaign against the proposed referendum. It’s time, she said, for Washingtonians “to say we stand for justice and we stand for shared responsibility to one another. Today is that day.”
She predicted the measure, if it gets on the ballot, will fail. She said it’s time to be rid of the “unsettling notion” that some loving, devoted families don’t deserve the same rights as others.
“Going back is not an option for the people of the state of Washington,” she said.
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