Advertisement
Share

Davis Signs 3 Bills Supporting Domestic Partners, Gay Rights

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gov. Gray Davis on Saturday signed a controversial package of gay rights bills, including one that officially recognizes same sex domestic partnerships and extends health insurance benefits to the unmarried partners of government employees.

A second bill is aimed at enhancing protection of gay high school and college students from harassment by classmates. The third will lead to more aggressive prosecution of sexual discrimination cases in employment and housing.

In signing the bills, which narrowly cleared the Legislature last month, the governor cited the murder last year of a Wyoming college student, Matthew Shepard, 21, who authorities allege was savagely tortured and killed by hate-filled bigots because he was gay.

The new laws, Davis said, will become weapons to help “beat back the forces of hatred and discrimination that strike at the very heart of what it means to be a Californian.”

Advertisement

Davis, a moderate Democrat, had indicated several weeks ago that he would sign the politically sensitive domestic partners bill, but had not signaled in advance whether he would sign the others.

He timed the announcement of his action to coincide with a fund-raising banquet in Beverly Hills to honor President Clinton, an event sponsored by Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality.

In addressing about 1,000 supporters at the event, Clinton said, “I wish I could have done better” on gay and lesbian rights issues. “But we’ve done pretty well.”

Davis, who campaigned last year against what he called divisive “wedge issues,” said in a prepared speech earlier in the day that he wants a “new California based on hope instead of fear, tolerance instead of ignorance [and] issues that unite us instead of issues that divide us.”

The bills were sponsored by Democrats, Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, a possible contender for mayor of Los Angeles, and Assemblywomen Sheila Kuehl of Santa Monica and Carole Migden of San Francisco, the Legislature’s first two openly lesbian members.

“We’re finally on the map,” declared Migden, asserting that her domestic partners bill “affirms the legitimacy and sincerity of lesbian and gay families.”

The bill (AB 26) will create a California registry of domestic partners in the secretary of state’s office and offer such couples limited benefits usually accorded married couples, including the right to hospital visits.

Although its same gender provisions drew the heaviest fire from critics, the bill would apply to heterosexual partners as well, including seniors who live together but choose not to wed because marriage would reduce their Social Security benefits.

Advertisement

For recognition as domestic partners, the couple must be “committed” to mutual caring, have reached 18, share a common residence and be responsible for the other partner’s living expenses. Neither partner can be married or in another domestic partnership.

The bill also gives state and local government employers the option of extending health insurance coverage to domestic partners.

With Davis’ support, the University of California regents two years ago adopted such a program for its employees over the opposition of then-Gov. Pete Wilson.

Many private employers already offer health benefits to domestic partners as do at least 27 local government entities in California, a Migden spokesman said. It is not known how many of the state government’s 250,000 workers would be affected by the new law.

Advertisement

All three bills faced heavy opposition in the Legislature, particularly from conservative Republicans and the religious right. One opponent, the Committee on Moral Concerns, denounced domestic partners legislation as “lending an air of legitimacy to homosexuality. This is the real motive of these bills.”

The bill to protect gay schoolchildren or students “perceived” to be gay from harassment and discrimination was carried by Kuehl, who has pursued the issue since she was first elected in 1994.

The bill inserts the prohibition against discrimination based on sexual orientation into the state education code. It joins existing protections against discrimination related to gender, ethnicity, race, national origin, religion and physical or mental disabilities.

Connecticut, Massachusetts and Wisconsin have similar protections for students.

Advertisement

Davis also disclosed that Judy Shepard, mother of the murdered University of Wyoming student, had appealed to him to sign the Kuehl bill, saying she believed that if Wyoming had such a law, the killers of her son would have “learned a fundamental respect of all people.”

The Villaraigosa bill (AB 1001) adds discrimination based on sexual orientation to the list of prohibited offenses in housing and employment laws. It also shifts enforcement of employment discrimination to the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which has more expertise in the field.

The Committee on Moral Concerns charged that the bill granted “more than equal protection” to gays, lesbians and bisexuals. The committee said those individuals are “not suffering from unemployment and poverty” to the extent of other minorities.

Davis established himself as a defender of domestic partner rights in 1996 when, as lieutenant governor, he cast a rare, tie-breaking vote in the state Senate.

Advertisement

At the time, the chamber was deadlocked 20-20 on a bill that would have prohibited the state from recognizing gay marriages performed in other states. Opponents of the bill wanted to attach a hostile amendment to it that would have created a domestic partners registry in California.

But Republican backers of the bill said that if such an amendment passed, they would kill the entire bill rather than proceed with a domestic partners rider. Davis voted for the amendment and the bill’s proponents immediately abandoned it.

The explosive issue of same sex marriages will return to California in March when voters will decide whether to approve an initiative that would prohibit California from recognizing same gender marriages.

*

Advertisement

Times staff writers Amy Pyle and Ed Chen contributed to this story.


Advertisement