'Domestic partners' registry voted down by City Council

March 22, 1994|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

In what is at least a temporary setback for gay rights advocates in Baltimore, a bill to set up a municipal registry for "domestic partnerships" failed last night to muster enough votes to pass a key test in the City Council.

The council voted 10-6 with one abstention to send the bill back to committee. That vote came after the council voted 8-7 with two abstentions to kill a series of technical amendments to the legislation, which would allow members of nontraditional households to document their relationships and possibly qualify for benefits from private employers now given only to married couples. Two council members were absent.

Last night's council action comes three months after the city's Board of Estimates voted unanimously to make domestic partners of gay and lesbian city workers eligible for health benefits, effective Jan. 1. The council vote does not affect that policy.

Several U.S. cities, including New York, San Francisco and Seattle, offer health benefits for domestic partners or domestic registries or both.

After the council meeting, several black ministers and their supporters -- many holding sheets of paper reading "Against Bill #687" -- hailed the council's failure to give preliminary approval to the bill. They vowed to work hard to kill the legislation, which they regard as encouraging immorality.

"We knocked the bill down, not out. We're out to finish it off. It belongs in the graveyard," said the Rev. Lawrence Washington, president of the Baltimore Coalition for Church Rights and pastor of Owens Memorial Baptist Church in the Arlington section of Northwest Baltimore.

Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, the bill's chief sponsor, admitted he was "disappointed" in the council's action last night.

The 3rd District Democrat said he had gotten commitments in advance to pass the bill, but he added that last night, "The votes weren't there."

Mr. Cunningham, who chairs the council's health and environment committee, said he would bring the bill back to the council floor soon.

"I'll bring it back for a vote in a couple of weeks and see what happens," he said.

Advocates of the legislation, many of them wearing multicolored emblems representing gay rights, vowed to press hard for passage of the bill, which they said was a matter of equal pay for equal work.

"The way it's going to get through is with a solid grass-roots campaign. What we're going to do is bring individuals from nontraditional families down to City Hall to talk to their council people," said Shannon Avery, co-chair of the Baltimore Justice Coalition, a gay rights group.

Among those the advocates will have to work hardest to persuade are the council's black members, who would be hurt the most politically if opposed by the black ministers. Last night, only one black council member, 2nd District Democrat Paula Johnson Branch, voted in favor of the amendments.

Sixth District Democrat Melvin L. Stukes, chairman of the council's eight-member African-American Coalition, was one of those who had agreed to co-sponsor the bill when it was introduced last November, but he voted against the amendments last night.

Mr. Stukes, citing the opposition of many in the religious community, said, "I'm not going to argue with the Bible."

He also complained that there was "too much last-minute arm-twisting" on both sides.

Barbara A. Samuels, chairwoman of the Mayor's Task Force on Gay & Lesbian issues, also complained about last-minute arm-twisting by "some extremist ministers."

"The bill will pass in some form. It's only a question of when," she said.

Ms. Samuels said before the council's action that the bill is important because it provided a definition of "domestic partnerships" and set up a way to document that members of households who weren't married were part of a legal union.

The definition and documentation would make it easier for private-sector employees to bargain with their employers for benefits, she said.

Mr. Cunningham said many opponents did not understand the intent of the legislation.

"I think this bill has been very much misunderstood. We, through this bill, are mandating nothing," he said.

But the Rev. John Wright, president of the Baltimore area's Baptist Ministers' Conference, cast his opposition in moral terms.

"What we have here is an abomination," said Mr. Wright, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Guilford in Howard County. "The city government endorsing these partnerships is sending out the wrong signal."

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