The city of San Francisco and the state of California have long been pioneers in allowing same-sex couples to register as domestic partners, which provides them many of the legal rights and responsibilities of marriage—including workplace benefits to spouses—without the title. What happens, legally, to those relationships in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decisions on Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act?
Turns out domestic partnerships will stay in place. Nothing legally changes as a result of the rulings. But don’t be shocked if a few years down the line, the only legal options for individuals in California are "married" or "single." Domestic partnerships might survive as niche legal arrangements for couples seeking the rights of marrieds without the rings and flowers, but this would give rise to a sticky, and hugely ironic, situation: Discrimination against straight couples.
Consider: As a result of the Supreme Court's rulings, gay couples in California now have the ability to either marry or register as domestic partners; in either case, they are entitled to the same job benefits (such as health insurance) as spouses. Straight couples have these rights too, however, some employers in this state—most notably the state of California itself—do not treat gay and straight domestic partners the same. In California, straight domestic partners of state employees aren't entitled to benefits such as health and life insurance unless one partner is 62 or over. "California does allow older straight couples to register as domestic partners," says Frederick Hertz, a local lawyer and author of Making It Legal. "But there's not much of a public policy reason for it, and I doubt there will be much of a political push to expand it."
Which brings up the obvious question: In California, have domestic partnerships become like the body's appendix—unneeded, obsolete, yet harmful when inflamed? “There’s a small minority of people who thinks there should be an alternative to marriage,” Hertz says, “but for the majority, domestic partnerships are a vehicle that has been outgrown.” Not so fast, say some elected officials. State Assemblymember Tom Ammiano argues that domestic partnership still serves a purpose. “It’s a choice people can make. Traditionally, it was only heterosexual couples who could get married, but it has never been that only LGBT couples could be domestic partners." Under state law, Ammiano contends, there is "no [contradiction] between the two statuses." Though they have disagreed on some issues in the past, Supervisor Scott Wiener shares Ammiano's point of view in this instance: “Domestic partnerships do still serve a purpose,” he says. “Some people, gay or straight, may not want to get married. For some, it may be a tax issue. For seniors, it may have to do with Social Security benefits. For others, it may just be a life issue.”
For now, it remains to be seen whether the disparity in the way the law treats gay and straight couples will lead to a scaling back of domestic-partnership rights for gays—and other folks too. In the meantime, domestic partners, enjoy those health benefits while they last!
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