|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
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
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
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
email@example.com. Unmarried America is a nonprofit
information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and