This week, a bill allowing domestic partnerships in Florida had its first committee hearing but stalled over some lawmakers’ concerns that it’s unconstitutional. The bill’s sponsor is reworking it after a hearing full of passionate debate.
It looked like the domestic partnership bill, Senate Bill 196, was headed for a committee vote. The measure would allow any couple, gay or straight, to register their relationship and be granted all the rights and privileges of a married couple. Sen. Jeff Clemens (D- Lake Worth) said, years down the road, people would remember this moment.
“People who stood up for the rights of Floridians are going to be seen as pioneers,” he said. “And it’s almost shameful that we have to be viewed as pioneers, cause I don’t see myself as one. And I know the other people who support this bill don’t see themselves as pioneers either. This is simply a bill that allows our constituents to be themselves and puts an end to, really, the bigotry that seems to happen in our communities, when somebody who loves someone else can’t act on that.”
But others weren’t convinced the bill would pass constitutional muster.
Sen. Nancy Detert (R-Venice) said, “I’m sad to say I can’t support this bill because it’s too broad and it’s like a walking lawsuit, as far as I’m concerned.”
Like other opponents of the bill, she had doubts about how it would stand up to the amendment 62 percent of voters passed in 2008. It said marriage was between a man and woman and banned the state from recognizing same-sex unions that resembled marriages.
Detert wasn’t convinced by testimony from lawyer Mary Meeks, who found the bill constitutional. Meeks said, the proposed domestic partnerships would differ from marriage in hundreds of ways, including one obvious one:
“If you’re a registered domestic partner, whatever those rights are, they don’t travel with you outside the state of Florida. Marriage obviously is, it’s portable. Those rights are recognized outside the state. They go with you wherever you go.”
But other speakers, representing the Florida Prayer Network, the Florida Baptist Convention and Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, said domestic partnerships are too close to marriage for their comfort. Catholic Conference spokesman Michael Sheedy said, the state shouldn’t blur the line between the two.
“Marriage and family life in our society is struggling, is declining, and so, unfortunately, by broadening the definition of what constitutes a family, or creating more confusion about that, we don’t necessarily help that situation,” Sheedy said.
Census data show, about 6 percent of the households in Florida are unmarried partners. That includes more than 319,000 same-gender couples. Several cities, like Sarasota and Orlando, already have domestic partner registries, which grant people a small list of rights, including hospital and prison visitation. Other places, like the city of Venice and Leon County, are considering them.
But Rep. Joe Saunders (D-Orlando), one of the first openly gay Florida lawmakers, said, the patchwork of domestic-partner laws isn’t good enough.
He said, “Can any of you imagine, those of you who are married or those of you who have partners, what it would be like, in a moment you were rushing your partner to the hospital, to try and remember county borders?”
And Vicki Nantz, who lives in Orlando, said, Florida needs to prevent things like what happened to her friend, Joyce. When Joyce’s partner of 10 years, Claudia, died in Hospice, Joyce started making funeral arrangements, only to be told she wasn’t allowed because she wasn’t legally family.
“No one should have to endure the inhumanity that was endured by our friend Joyce at the very worst moment of her life” Nantz said.
Just before the committee could vote on the bill, sponsor Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood) decided to postpone it for reworking, rather than risk it dying. She said, she’s open to significantly narrowing down the list of rights that would come with domestic partnerships, just to get something passed.
“We need to uphold the Constitution to protect everybody,” she said. “Everybody here needs equal civil rights in this state.”
Regardless of what happens in Florida, a forthcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision could change the definition of marriage nationwide. California’s Proposition 8, similar to Florida’s amendment defining marriage between a man and a woman, and the federal Defense of Marriage Act will be challenged next month. If they’re found unconstitutional, marriage rights for all people could extend nationwide.