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Drastically Narrowed Fla. Domestic Partnership Bill To Get New Hearing

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Jessica Palombo

A bill that would legalize domestic partnerships in Florida is having a hearing on Tuesday after being drastically reworked following debate last month. The bill would grant domestic partners a small fraction of the rights given to married couples.

In 2007, Janice Langbehn flew from Washington state to Miami with her partner, Lisa, and three of their children. The family was going on a cruise to celebrate the couple’s 18-year anniversary. But shortly after boarding the ship, 39-year-old Lisa suddenly collapsed.

“I took one look at her and I knew that she was dying,” Langbehn said.

She and the children followed as Lisa was rushed into a hospital emergency room.

But when they got there, she said, “I tried following the gurney back in, and I was told, ‘Stop,’ and to go out to the waiting room, which I thought meant I needed to fill out admission papers, and the woman at the desk told me, just very crassly, to go sit down.”

Langbehn was told she would not be able to see her partner without a legal document granting her power of attorney. After watching the Terry Schiavo case play out in Florida, she said, she and Lisa had gotten the document. She believed it would allow her to make decisions on Lisa’s behalf if she became incapacitated. But, she said, the hospital didn’t seem to care.

“The hospital received all our documents within 20 minutes of Lisa’s arrival, but yet it took over eight hours for me to be with her,” she said.

By then, it was too late.

Langbehn said, “We lost a great person, and ultimately she didn’t deserve to die alone.”

The advocacy group Equality Florida said, in 2010, Langbehn’s story prompted President Obama to order all hospitals receiving federal money to respect patients’ visitation wishes, including for their domestic partners. Langbehn said, she’s hoping her story can also help convince the Florida Legislature of the need for a domestic partner law.

And Senate sponsor Eleanor Sobel, (D-Hollywood) said, what’s in the bill mirrors what already exists where 47 percent of Floridians live, in various cities and counties.

“This is all based on current law that has already has passed muster in the courts,” Sobel said. “So all of these have all been proven in the courts as well as approved by councils in local governments.”

Similar to what places like Broward County and Orlando have, the bill would grant a handful of rights like hospital visitation and funeral arrangement. It’s significantly pared down from Sobel’s original bill, which granted all rights that married couples have. Some lawmakers were concerned it violated the Florida constitution, which prohibits same-sex unions that resemble marriages.

And opponents of the bill, like John Stemberger, of the Florida Family Policy Council, a conservative advocacy group, have said, a new law is not necessary for people to get those rights.

Last month, Stemberger testified to a Senate committee, “This is not a gay problem. This is a human problem. And it’s solved with proper estate planning, with a durable power of attorney and a living will.”

But supporters disagree, saying there’s a real need for legal penalties for not honoring those documents.

And Marti Chumbler, a lawyer with the Carlton Fields law firm, said, Florida should have a uniform domestic partner policy to attract business to the state.

“Over 50 percent of the employers in this country, 85 percent of the Fortune 100 companies in this country offer domestic partner benefits,” she said.

The bill will be heard in the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee on Tuesday. The House version, sponsored by Rep. Mark Pafford (D-West Palm Beach), is not yet on a committee agenda.