Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Good Little Bill

If you ever watch the Washington State Legislature in session, you’re likely to hear the phrase “a good little bill” used a lot. Legislators often use the term to describe simple bills that fix small but important problems.

Yesterday, the Washington State Senate passed a classic example of a good little bill: HB 1649, a two-page measure that corrects a quirk in Washington’s domestic partnership law. The bill provides that when same-sex couples who are validly married in another state or country travel to Washington, they will have the same rights and responsibilities as registered domestic partners in our state.

Currently, Washington recognizes the legal rights of same-sex couples who enter domestic partnerships or civil unions in other states, but provides no recognition to same-sex couples who are legally married in other jurisdictions. For example, if a lesbian couple registers as domestic partners in Oregon, they don’t lose their legal rights as a couple when they cross the border to Washington. But if a lesbian couple marries in Massachusetts or another jurisdiction that permits same-sex marriage, their relationship is not legally recognized in any way while they are in Washington. HB 1649 plugs that hole in the law.

The bill doesn’t overturn Washington’s unfair ban on same-sex marriages; that’s a fight for another day. But it does ensure that same-sex couples who are legally married in other jurisdictions will at least be treated the same as registered domestic partners while they are in Washington.

In past legislative sessions, the mere mention of the word “marriage” in connection with LGBT couples was sure to kick up a long and fierce debate in Olympia. But this year, HB 1649 passed with very little vocal opposition and by solid margins in both houses (58-39 in the House, 28-19 in the Senate).

Legal Voice was proud to testify and lobby in favor of bill with our allies from Equal Rights Washington. But the most powerful testimony in favor of the bill undoubtedly came from Janice Langbehn. In 2007, Janice and her partner Lisa travelled from Washington to Florida to take a cruise with their children. Lisa collapsed before the cruise departed and was rushed to the hospital. Hospital staff prevented Janice and the children from seeing Lisa for hours, saying that they were in an anti-gay city and state. Lisa died in the hospital without Janice or her children by her side. HB 1649 will help prevent other couples from facing the discrimination that Janice and her family endured.

The bill was sponsored by State Representative Laurie Jinkins, a newly-elected legislator from Tacoma and a strong new voice for equality in Olympia. Representative Jinkins is the first open lesbian to serve in the Washington Legislature, and HB 1649 should become her first bill to be signed into law.

Of course, HB 1649 is only a small step forward. Washington and 44 other states still deny marriage equality to LGBT couples, and the Defense of Marriage Act continues to prevent federal recognition of same-sex marriages (despite President Obama’s recent decision to stop defending the law in court). But every victory matters, and it’s a thrill to see this good little bill by a great new legislator headed to the Governor’s desk.

by David Ward

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