Sunday, November 01, 2009

Washington: Affirm Referendum 71

When voters in Washington State go to the polls this Tuesday they will be asked to either uphold or reject a law that grants same-sex couples (and senior citizen couples that don't marry) the same legal rights and responsibilities opposite-sex couples take for granted when they marry.

The state began the gradual process of granting these couples rights nearly 2.5 years ago. Legislation that was signed into law in 2007 and expanded in 2009 granted these couples the right to visit their loved ones in a hospital and to make fully-informed life-sustaining/ending decisions on his or her behalf and the right to make funeral arrangements, donate the deceased partner's organs, and dispose of the deceased partner's body as he or she sees fit. The legislation also provided for basic inheritance and estate administration rights and made communal property and domestic violence laws applicable to domestic partners.

Thankfully, Referendum 71 does not ask Washington voters to accept or reject those rights which were granted in legislation passed in 2007 and 2008. Gay Washingtonians will have the same hospital visitation and probate rights whether their neighbors vote to affirm referendum 71.

This referendum concerns the rights granted in legislation passed and signed into law this year. Senate Bill 6588 grants domestic partners all of the rights and responsibilities that the state affords to married, heterosexual couples without the label that purportedly offends those who consider "marriage" to be a religious sacrament. Specifically this legislation addresses the disparities in worker compensation coverage offered to married couples and domestic partners, and provide for the remaining disparities in familial treatment that were not addressed in the prior legislation.

This law, for example would grant an employee the same right to use sick leave to care for his or her same-sex domestic partner that an employee would have to care for his or her opposite sex spouse. Workers who would otherwise not be allowed to enroll their significant other into the company's health insurance plan will be allowed to do so under the same terms that are granted to married heterosexual couples. Unpaid wages will pass on to the surviving member in a domestic partnership.
and the state will treat domestic partnerships like married couples with respect to spousal rights, and child custody.

Referendum 71's proponents have done themselves no credit by casting this as a basic issue of fairness, nor have they done themselves any favors by allowing their opponents to cast this as a referendum on the homo-sexualization of their public schools. Programs designed to combat anti-gay prejudice in schools predate gay marriage and gay domestic partnerships. They thrive in jurisdictions where gay marriage is the law and they thrive in jurisdictions that do not offer gay marriage. And they are challenged in jurisdictions that have and don't recognize same-sex unions. One need only look at the gay tolerance program challenged in Massachusetts, where gay marriage was legalized and the gay tolerance program that thrives in Alameda County, California in spite of that state's repeal of that state's inclusive marriage laws.

Nor have they done themselves any favors by appealing for the rlease of the names of anyone who signed the petition challenging Washington's expanded domestic partnership law. Attention and resources devoted to this endeavor could have been used to educate Washington's voters about the ways this law affects their neighbors in their daily lives.

Those who say this amendment is about fairness and equality have been selling themselves short. No this is not merely about some abstract constitutional right or principle which voters can accept or reject and then move on with their lives. This is about real people facing real challenges. A vote to reject Washington's domestic partnership legislation isn't merely unfair towards those it was designed to help; it is cruel towards to them. It isn't merely a vote to deny gay people some abstract right married couples take for granted but rather a vote to deny them the right to use sick time to care for their loved one to in their moment of need or the right to provide their loved ones with the same access to their employers' health care plans their straight counterparts take for granted. This isn't merely about the same custodial rights to a child but the need to consider the son or daughter's strong bond to both parents in a dissolving familial unit.

Washington isn't merely voting on some abstract rights. They are voting on people's lives and once that state's residents see that they should be able to push these other side issues to the side. If this referendum's opponents are afraid this will encourage gay Washingtonians to press for the right to marry they can always gather the signatures required to challenge that law, just as they have done here. They could see this is about the disparity in employee pay offered to two individuals doing the same work.

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