Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

January 9, 2006  



Domestic partner benefits are inevitable

by Thomas F. Coleman

Granting benefits to domestic partners was a relatively new concept when I started teaching "Rights of Domestic Partners" at the University of Southern California Law School in 1985.  The idea was so new, in fact, that my class was the first of its kind at any law school in the nation.

In 1985, Berkeley was the only American city with domestic partner health benefits for municipal employees.  West Hollywood was the only city with a domestic partner registry.  Levi Straus and the Village Voice newspaper stood out, virtually alone in providing private sector employee benefits for unmarried partners.

Much has happened in the intervening years.  Instead of being an oddity, employment benefits and legal protections for domestic partners are becoming part of the political and economic fabric of American life.

There are now more than 8,000 public and private employers which offer such benefits as a part of their employee benefits packages.  Dozens of cities and counties, and even a few states such as California and New Jersey, have registries which allow unmarried couples to declare their family status, thereby gaining a variety of legal protections formerly reserved to married couples.

These benefit programs, registries, and legal protections are serving the needs of several diverse populations.  The most obvious beneficiaries, of course, are same-sex couples who have been locked out of government recognized marriages.

But there are a growing number of heterosexual couples who want domestic partner benefits and legal protections.  These include younger couples who are cohabiting as a prelude to formal marriage as well as those who are choosing unmarried partnership as an alternative to marriage. 

Many older couples who are now divorced or widowed are choosing domestic partnership because, if they remarry a new partner, they would lose valuable survivor benefits from a prior marriage.  With baby boomers now reaching retirement age, the ranks of seniors living in domestic partnerships is bound to grow.

Most people now cohabit prior to marriage, some for several years, before they decide to marry or go separate ways.  Many of these unmarried families resent being treated as if they are strangers.  They want their family relationships recognized by employers and by the government.

There are also many unmarried blood relatives living together and who feel that they deserve some legal protection and economic benefits too.  Why should domestic partner benefits be limited to couples with sexual relationships?  Why can't two siblings or a parent and adult child get similar benefits and protections?

Although they don't have a strong lobby, like the gay and lesbian population does, the notion of broadening partner benefits to include blood relatives is getting some attention these days.  The Salt Lake City Council will consider such a proposal this week, the same week that the mayor of Washington D.C. is expected to sign a new law there which gives major legal protections to domestic partners, including blood relatives.

But as gains are being made for domestic partner benefits, opposition to such programs remains strong.  Most of the opposition stems from religious objections to government recognition of adult relationships other than marriage.

A Florida legislator has introduced a bill to prohibit state universities from using government funds for domestic partner benefits.  This bill is a reaction to a recent decision of University of Florida trustees to provide benefits to unmarried partners of university employees.

Despite opposition from Republican legislators, Democratic Governor Jim Doyle has found a way to offer dental benefits to domestic partners of Wisconsin state employees.  The new plan begins this year.

New York's highest court heard arguments this week in a case that pits Mayor Bloomberg against the New York City Council.  The council passed a law, despite a mayoral veto, requiring businesses which contract with the city to offer partner benefits if they offer spousal benefits.  The law is similar to ordinances in San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Portland.

A bill has just been introduced in Washington to amend the Family Care Act in that state to allow employees to take extended leave to care for a domestic partner with a serious illness. Federal law is limited to spouses, parents, and children.

With domestic partner benefits becoming so mainstream, opponents of these measures are finding it harder to have them overturned through the ballot box.

In California, for example, proponents of a ballot initiative to prohibit domestic partner benefits stopped their efforts, at least temporarily.  They failed to gain sufficient signatures to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot this year.

Anti-domestic-partner forces in Arizona are beginning to wonder if their ballot measure will win favor with voters this November.  A recent poll by the Arizona Republic shows that just 38 percent of Arizona registered voters would vote to ban domestic partner benefits programs by state and municipal employers.

Given continuing demographic trends -- half of the nation's households are headed by unmarried adults now -- and given the advances made by domestic partner advocates over the past 20 years, it is reasonable to predict that domestic partner benefits are here to stay.

In a few more years, people will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.  Most Americans will soon realize that domestic partners are part of our nation's mosaic of family diversity.

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.