Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

June 11,  2007  



California considers marital status options

By Thomas F. Coleman

The California Legislature is edging its way toward the adoption of two bills which would give all unmarried couples -- regardless of sexual orientation -- options as to the legal status afforded to their relationship.

Under current law, same-sex couples can choose to remain in an unmarried status or to enter into a registered domestic partnership.  But they do not have the option to marry.

Opposite-sex couples have the option of remaining unmarried or they may legally marry.  If one of the partners is over 62 years old, then the couple also has the option of registering as domestic partners.  State law does not allow opposite-sex couples under 62 to register as domestic partners with the Secretary of State.

Last month, the California Assembly approved AB 43, by Assemblyman Mark Leno, to remove the current requirement that marriage partners be of the opposite sex.  An identical measure was approved by the Legislature in 2005, only to be vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

If California were to pass a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, it would be only the second state where gay couples can legally wed.  Massachusetts removed the gender restriction from its marriage laws due to an order from the state supreme court.

A few days ago, the California Senate passed SB 11, by Senator Carole Migden, to remove the age requirement from the domestic partner registration system.  The bill would allow all couples of any adult age to become domestic partners.

Although several states have adopted various forms of civil union or domestic partnership as an alternative to marriage, all but one limit their registration systems to same-sex couples.  So far, Maine is the only state which allows all adult couples, regardless of gender, to register as domestic partners. 

Maine's law is rather limited, however, in terms of benefits which are associated with domestic partnership registration.  Partners can inherit without a will and can make medical and burial decisions in the same manner as a legal spouse.

Last week, the Legislature in Maine expanded the list of benefits by extending family leave to workers who need time off to care for a domestic partner.  Gov. John Baldacci has said he will sign it.

Meanwhile, the bills to expand eligibility for marriage and domestic partnership continue to wind their way through the California Legislature. 

"It seems to me entirely fair that this Legislature respond to the emerging new definition of marriage and family," Migden, one of California's first openly lesbian lawmakers, told her colleagues during debate on her domestic partnership expansion bill.

SB 11 passed the Senate on June 4 by a 22-13 vote, largely along party lines, with Democrats supporting the measure and Republicans opposing it.

It was interesting that no Republican senator spoke against the bill during the floor session.

In sharp contrast, the floor debate on Leno's marriage bill was not so one-sided in the Assembly.

For about 90 minutes, 29 members of the Assembly voiced their support and opposition to AB 43.  When the dust settled, it passed by a vote of 42-34.

Although several Republicans spoke passionately against the bill, they did so less harshly than in 2005 when a similar bill was adopted by the Legislature.

One of the bill's critics was Assemblyman Anthony Adams who told his colleagues that he could not stand by and watch the Assembly "institutionalize" gay marriage.

"As a Christian, I do believe that the act of homosexuality is immoral," Adams said. "I think that it is inappropriate to suggest that it is anything other than a choice."

It appears that the domestic partner bill and the gay marriage bill will both be adopted by the full Legislature and find their way to the governor's desk.

Although Schwarzenegger has previously threatened to veto any gay marriage bill that is placed before him, he has not taken a position yet on the option of domestic partnership for young and middle-aged heterosexual adults.

Whether he will sign one or both of these bills this year is still an open question.  Even if not this year, it is almost inevitable that sooner or later California will respect the marital and familial choices of its residents.

And as Americans have seen time and time again -- as California goes, so goes the nation. Eventually. 

To read other editions of Column One, click here.

Unmarried America 2007

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.