Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

December 11,  2006  



California bill would correct the exclusion of heterosexual couples

By Thomas F. Coleman

Senator Carole Migden introduced a bill into the California Legislature last week to open up the state's domestic partnership registry to all unmarried couples.  The current system is limited to same-sex partners and heterosexual seniors.

Senate Bill 11 was introduced by Migden on December 4, 2006 -- the first day of the new legislative session.  A separate bill to legalize same-sex marriage was introduced the same day by Assemblyman Mark Leno.

Migden's bill would correct an injustice which has lingered since her first domestic partnership bill was signed into law by then Governor Gray Davis in 2000.  It would also bring the state registry into conformity with numerous city and county registries in California which allow same and opposite sex couples to register as domestic partners.

Domestic partnership started out in California as a gender-neutral concept -- a way for unmarried heterosexual and gay couples to officially declare their family status and to gain various rights and benefits as a result of registering their relationship with the government.  The first employee benefits program for government employees was instituted in 1984 in Berkeley and the first local registry in the state was implemented the following year in West Hollywood.  Both programs were open to any two unrelated adults regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

The first domestic partnership bills introduced into the California Legislature in the 1990s were gender neutral.  Some even passed the Legislature only to be vetoed by then Governor Pete Wilson. 

When Gray Davis was running for Governor to replace Wilson, he indicated his support for gender-neutral domestic partnership legislation.  However, once he was elected as the state's chief executive, he soon changed his position and demanded that then Assemblywoman Carole Migden amend her bill to limit it to same-sex couples.

I remember fuming about his flip-flop on this issue and spearheaded a protest over the exclusion of heterosexual domestic partners.  I thought it very strange that a domestic partnership registry and accompanying benefits would exclude the majority of domestic partners.

Ads were taken out in the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee chastising Davis for discriminating against unmarried heterosexual couples -- especially seniors who had long been in the forefront of the domestic partner rights movement.  After seniors groups complained loud and clear, Davis opened the door of reform just wide enough to let them sneak in. 

Davis insisted that Migden amend her bill to include gay couples of any adult age as well as heterosexual couples if both of the partners were over the age of 62.  The bill passed the legislature as amended and Davis signed it into law.

A few years later, the law was quietly amended to allow unmarried heterosexual couples to register as domestic partners if only one of the partners was over the age of 62.  Although a wide range of benefits and protections has been added to the domestic partnership system in California since then, eligibility to participate has remained the same -- gays and seniors.

When she introduced her bill last week, Migden told the San Francisco Chronicle that the growing number of unmarried heterosexual parents was the driving force behind her decision to remove the gender and age restrictions from the current domestic partnership registration system which is operated by the California Secretary of State.  Newspapers throughout the nation carried recent stories that nearly four in ten babies are now born to unmarried parents.

California's current domestic partnership eligibility is out of step with international trends and business practices in the United States.  Most businesses with domestic partnership benefits programs allow same-sex and opposite-sex couples to participate.

Many other nations have also adopted an inclusive approach to granting legal benefits and protections for unmarried couples.  For example, France, England, Australia, and New Zealand have passed laws in recent years which give new rights to unmarried couples regardless of gender.  Mexico City has just adopted such a program.

The key to the success or failure of Migden's bill is Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Whether he will respect the right of young or middle-aged unmarried heterosexuals to choose domestic partnership rather than marriage is an open question. 

If the Leno bill passes the Legislature as it did last year only to be vetoed by Schwarzenegger, the Governor will probably have two big decisions to make -- opening up marriage to gay couples and opening up domestic partnership to heterosexual couples.  It's hard to tell what he will do, but it's possible that 2007 could go down in history as the year that respect for family diversity became a central feature of public policy in California.


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Unmarried America 2006

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.