Gov. Gray Davis' decision to sign a bill substantially expanding rights for gays and lesbians in domestic partnerships will place California at the forefront of efforts to give same-sex couples the benefits and protections of traditional marriage, advocates say.
At a signing ceremony in the Capitol on Sunday, Davis said the bill--passed despite significant conservative opposition in the Legislature--is about fairness and equal treatment under the law.
"This will be one of the strongest domestic-partnership bills in the country," Davis said. Encouraging such unions, he added, helps build strong relationships, and "society benefits when people find comfort and assurance and stability in relationships."
The measure, AB 25, was one of the most passionately debated bills in the Legislature this year. At the signing ceremony, activists who fought for its passage alternately cheered and grew teary-eyed at the significance of the event.
Supporters said the measure provides important legal recognition of California's expanding ranks of nontraditional families. But the bill drew angry denunciations from Republicans on the floor of both houses, where the votes split along party lines.
The Campaign for California Families, a nonprofit conservative group, ran television and radio ads urging Davis to veto the bill. The group's executive director, Randy Thomasson, said the measure undermines Proposition 22, the ballot initiative approved last year that defined marriage as a heterosexual union.
Davis sought to comfort such critics Sunday, noting that, "in California a legal marriage is a marriage between a man and a woman" and "that's not going to change."
Thomasson, however, said that "in one fell swoop, Gray Davis has cheapened every marriage in the state" by extending some marital rights to gays and lesbians.
Thomasson also called the governor a hypocrite for signing the bill, which could cost the state $1.1 million a year in lost taxes now paid on domestic partners' health benefits. Numerous other measures that would have cost the state money were vetoed by Davis because of California's weakening economy.
The bill's author, Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-San Francisco), hailed the governor's signature as "truly something to celebrate.
"The provisions in this bill are in keeping with the attitudes of the broad base of fair and decent-minded Californians, and we're very appreciative of this significant step forward," Migden said. Of her critics, she added: "They're irrational. And being hit by their insults is part of the indignity of this process."
Studies suggest there are about 400,000 same-sex couples in California. To take advantage of the benefits under AB 25, however, couples must register as domestic partners with the state under a system established in 1999. About 7,600 couples, mostly of the same sex, have registered.
The registry was created by another Migden bill that also gave domestic partners hospital visitation rights--which otherwise could be restricted to family members--and health coverage for dependents of some state government employees.
AB 25 adds about a dozen additional legal benefits for domestic partners, including the right to:
* Sue for the wrongful death of a partner.
* Make medical decisions for a partner in the hospital.
* Adopt a partner's child using the stepparent adoption process.
* Use sick leave to care for an ill or incapacitated partner.
* Act as a conservator.
* Relocate with a partner without losing unemployment benefits.
"This is a very big deal," said Lisa Belsanti of the California Alliance for Pride and Equality, a gay and lesbian lobbying group. "It gives same-sex partners the essential tools to make life-and-death decisions on each other's behalf."
Belsanti added that the new benefits have assumed added importance given the September terrorist attacks and "everyone's new focus on emergency preparedness."
"We're all wondering what we do if disaster strikes," Belsanti said. "For gay and lesbian couples, that feeling is more significant because they are unprotected as a family unit under state law. This bill remedies some of that."
Among those urging the Legislature to pass the bill was the partner of San Franciscan Diane Whipple, the 33-year-old lacrosse coach who was killed in a widely publicized dog mauling.
Testifying before a Senate committee, Sharon Smith said she was shocked to learn that California law did not recognize her right to hold the dog's owners accountable for her partner's death.
"I couldn't believe it," said Smith, 35. "To say that it added insult to injury is a gross understatement."
Also supporting the bill--and attending Sunday's signing ceremony--was Paul Holm, the partner of Mark Bingham, one of the passengers who died after helping to overpower hijackers on United Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11.
"Mark believed in fair equal treatment for all people, regardless of their orientation, and I know he would have wanted to be here for this," Holm said.
The new law comes at a time when domestic-partner policies nationwide are proliferating. Despite the popularity of measures such as California's Proposition 22 that define marriage as between men and women, gay and lesbian couples have achieved new legal recognition both in the corporate and government sectors.
Hundreds of cities, colleges and private employers--including such blue-chip companies as Ford Motor Co., Walt Disney Co. and IBM Corp.--now recognize and in many cases provide benefits to domestic partners. In California, cities with such policies include Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Berkeley.
So far, Vermont is the only state that has allowed gay couples to form "civil unions" that carry many of the rights, benefits and responsibilities of marriage. But activists in California note that Vermont was forced through legal action to take that step, while progress on domestic partnerships here has been accomplished legislatively.
A measure to establish civil unions in California, AB 1338, was introduced this year by Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood), but will not get official scrutiny in the statehouse until January. Anticipating an uproar, Koretz is convening a series of informational hearings to explain the concept to the public and fellow lawmakers.
Gay and lesbian advocates say that short of winning passage of the Koretz bill, they plan to press for further expansion of rights for domestic partners in the coming year.