Nancy Polikoff

Now is not the time to eliminate domestic partnership in the District of Columbia

Filed By Nancy Polikoff | October 09, 2009 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: District of Columbia, domestic partnership, marriage equality

The bill authorizing same-sex marriages in the District of Columbia contains a disturbing additional provision that has gotten little attention. It eliminates any new domestic partnerships as of January 1, 2011. I don't know why Councilmember David Catania wrote this into the legislation, but I do hope he will reconsider in light of the history of domestic partnership in DC and its eligibility criteria.

Domestic partnership in DC was never about providing a legal status to same-sex couples based on their exclusion from marriage. Different-sex couples are allowed to register, and of course they have always been able to marry. In addition, domestic partnership is available to any two people living together in a "committed familial relationship." It is open to relatives who are unable to marry. It means, for example, that a grandmother and grandson can be domestic partners, assuming that they live together and have no other domestic partner or spouse. That way, if he now works for the DC government, she is eligible for his health insurance benefits in the same way an employee's spouse is eligible.

The criteria were the product of deliberate decisions to broaden the definition of relationships that count for legal purposes and to cease making marriage the exclusive means of obtaining important legal benefits.

I do think that once same-sex couples can marry in DC it will make sense to reevaluate what legal status we make available to other relationships. In addition to considering retaining domestic partnerships, I'd like a robust discussion of enacting a status such as Colorado's "designated beneficiary." I'd also like us to consider the test for benefit eligibility that Salt Lake City affords its employees - any one adult with whom the employee lives in an interdependent relationship and that person's children.

In addition, there is a reason to maintain domestic partnerships even if one considers only legal protections for same-sex couples. There are states that will recognize another state's domestic partnership or civil union but will not recognize same-sex marriages. Eliminating domestic partnerships in DC leaves such couples more vulnerable, not less, in other parts of the country.

We could hash all this out now, but I suggest we take this process one step at a time. Let the marriage bill be considered on its own merits. Once it becomes law, let's think through other relationship recognition issues. That means the provision eliminating domestic partnership should come out of the Catania bill. I hope Councilmember Catania will agree with this proposal and that Phil Mendelson's Judiciary and Public Safety Committee will make it happen.

crossposted from Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage


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Nancy, you're absolutely right about removing the provision that would eliminate domestic partnership before it moves to the full Council. In addition to the good reasons you've already stated, one has to consider DC's Home Rule status, as well. At any time, Congress can strip or insert anything it wants in the appropriations for the District, and otherwise impact DC law. So besides the breadth of the law (you explained the history of that so well, I didn't realize) and the other relationships this would impact, even for glbt people, anything is at risk in the District in the parallel universe it runs with Congress. Writing from Colorado now, designated beneficiaries seems to be getting very positive response: the key groups that made it happen, esp ERC (and their former lobbyist, now State Senator, Pat Steadman), have been aggressive about getting the word out.

Nancy, thanks for pointing this out -- another example of how gay marriage proponents are willing to push everyone else to the side in order to get that holy grail...

Charles Gossett | October 11, 2009 12:38 PM

One of the issues I've never seen described is just how many domestic partnerships registered in DC are between same-sex couples who fit our "stereotype" of what DPs are and how many are the types of DPs that Nancy describes, i.e., family members. The mayoral Commission that studied this back in the early 90s actually had proposed two categories of extended health benefit coverage...unmarried opposite-sex and same-sex couples, called DPs, and Extended Family coverage for two people related by blood who shared a residence. It became clear that the coverage for the latter category would be prohibitively expensive since insurance companies feared adverse selection by DC government workers who had a very sick relative who didn't currently have health insurance and there was a reluctance to have it stand out there alone. In a last minute change, the Council dropped language about Extended Family and simply amended the definition of who could be DPs by dropping the requirement that the partners could not be "related by blood closer than would allow marriage in the District."