Legislator backs domestic partner bill

OLYMPIA — Expanding privileges for same-sex couples is not a partisan issue but one of civil rights, says the newest member of the Legislature’s unofficial gay caucus.

Rep. Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo, who was appointed to his position in January, is backing a bill working its way through the Legislature that would expand rights for domestic partners.

“It really shouldn’t matter where you come from on a political spectrum; it’s about making sure that everybody has an equal opportunity in our society to succeed. Rights and responsibilities of our families shouldn’t be a political issue,” Liias said.

The bill would provide financial security by extending domestic partners’ rights and responsibilities in the legal areas of community property, probate and trust, guardianship and power of attorney, testimonial privilege, taxes, nursing homes and veterans benefits.

The legislation passed the House with a 62-32 vote earlier this month and is currently moving through the Senate.

It builds upon a law the state passed last year allowing domestic partners in Washington to register and provide them some basic benefits enjoyed by married couples, such as hospital visitation and the right to inherit when there is no will.

The impact such a law would have on society is what remains the critics’ primary concern. Sharon Park, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, said this is not about individuals but about changing the way society perceives marriage.

“It’s not a civil rights issue; it’s an issue of legalizing gay marriage,” she said.

While opponents claim that the bill is an incremental step to gay marriage, Liias disagrees.

“I think it’s just a way to distract us from the specific issue we have this year. This bill is not about marriage. It’s about financial security,” he said.

The prime sponsor of the bill, Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said this is a step in addressing the inequality Washington’s gay and lesbian families face every day.

“There has been a profound shift in public understanding. It’s important for us to do as much as we can to protect our families,” said Pedersen, who is also a member of the Legislature’s unofficial gay caucus.

Liias said he has been getting a lot of positive feedback from constituents in response to his support for the bill. “People are excited that there is another voice for gay and lesbian families. It made me feel happy and proud of being here.”

The support the bill received in the Legislature may have a lot to do with the compelling stories of families that came to testify at committee hearings, Liias said. “We need to think about the individuals involved, not society at large.”

While this particular bill doesn’t talk about marriage, supporters have been very clear that marriage is their goal.

Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, supported the bill and said he would probably support gay marriage as well. Not all the Democrats backing domestic partnerships are not comfortable with the issue. Sen. Paull Shin, D-Edmonds, for example, supported the bill’s companion in the Senate but said he would not support a bill recognizing gay marriage.

Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, said he also thinks marriage must remain a union between a man and a woman. “It’s moving more definitions of marriage into domestic partnerships, so what’s the point? Personally, I see this as giving same-sex couples special rights.”

Massachusetts is currently the only state to allow gay marriage, but Washington and eight other states and the District of Columbia offer some type of recognition for same-sex families.

Pedersen said pushing gay marriage through the Legislature is only a matter of time. “When it does come up, we’ll have a referendum challenge. And we can’t move the bill until we are prepared to defend it at the ballot box. We are not quite there yet.”

The current legislation is House Bill 3104.

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