By Rachel La Corte Associated Press

State representative says he hopes expansion of partnership law can eventually pave the way for same-sex marriage

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington state would offer same-sex couples all the rights and benefits given to heterosexual married couples under a measure that was introduced Tuesday, Jan. 27 in the Legislature.

Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who sponsored the state’s domestic partnership law in 2007, is sponsoring the expansion bill in the Senate this year; Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, is sponsoring the measure in the House.

"This is everything but marriage," Pedersen said Tuesday night.

The 110-page bill makes changes to all remaining areas of state law where currently only married couples are addressed. The bill would add same-sex domestic partners to state statutes ranging from labor and employment to pensions and other public employee benefits.

"Although we view this as an improvement that provides real and concrete protections to same-sex partners, it’s an inadequate substitute for marriage," Pedersen said. "Our hope is that the continuing success of this legislation helps people understand what marriage is, and that it gets them more comfortable with treating all families with equality dignity and respect."

Pedersen and Murray said that a same-sex marriage measure, also introduced Tuesday, is unlikely to go anywhere this year, but is meant to spark further discussion.

"It’s entirely possible that next year, enough things might have changed that we feel like it’s time to make a run at the marriage bill," Pedersen said. "We’re not there now. But it’s not out of the question."

Last year, both lawmakers led a successful effort to expand the partnership protections to sections of laws where previously only spouses were mentioned, including areas referring to probate and trusts, community property and homestead exemptions, and guardianship and powers of attorney.

The underlying domestic partnership law, spearheaded by Murray two years ago, provides hospital visitation rights, the ability to authorize autopsies and organ donations and inheritance rights when there is no will.

As of Tuesday, 4,940 domestic partnership registrations had been filed since the law took effect in July 2007.

"The institution of marriage has not collapsed as a result of passing domestic partnerships," Murray said.

Murray said because of the current budget challenges in the state that any aspects of the bill that have a fiscal impact, like pension benefits, will be delayed until 2012.

Joseph Fuiten, a Bothell pastor who leads the Positive Christian Agenda, a state group of Christian organizations opposed to same-sex marriage, said his group will actively oppose any expansion of the measure.

"When it says ‘everything but marriage,’ all that is, is a question of time," he said. "Whether you want to go by the freeway or the back roads, you get to the same spot."

To be registered as partners, couples must share a home, must not be married or in a domestic relationship with someone else, and be at least 18.

In a provision similar to California law, unmarried heterosexual senior couples also are eligible for domestic partnerships if one partner is at least 62. Lawmakers said that provision was included to help seniors who are at risk of losing pension rights and Social Security benefits if they remarry.

Several other states have approved either civil unions or domestic partnerships for same-sex couples, including Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Maine, California and Oregon. Hawaii extends certain spousal rights to same-sex couples and cohabiting heterosexual pairs. Only Connecticut and Massachusetts allow same-sex couples to marry.

The domestic partnership measures are Senate Bill 5688 and House Bill 1727. The marriage bill is Senate Bill 5674.

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