Domestic partnership registry rejected by Hillsborough Commission; provide info packet of "Important Life Decisions" instead

03/20/13 Janelle Irwin
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The Hillsborough County Commission approved a packet of legal documents put together by Al Higginbotham in lieu of a domestic partnership registry that was struck down last month. Higginbotham said the intent was to provide all people - not just people in relationships - easy and affordable access to rights which are already guaranteed by state statutes.

"You could put these into a single booklet, if you will. Available in libraries, law libraries, county libraries, maybe on the website."

But according to Mary Meeks, an attorney who specializes in domestic partnership registries, his solution only provides one of six benefits proponents of a domestic registry suggested.

"Couples who execute that packet of documents still would not have the legal right to visit each other in the hospital or in a correctional facility. They still would not have the right to arrange each other's funeral. They still would not have the right to be notified in the event of an emergency. They still would not have the right to participate in the educational activities of their partner's children. This particular packet of documents does not address any of those other five rights. No legal document can afford those rights. I think that's the most important thing I can say here today."

Meeks added the one benefit it would provide, the ability to make healthcare decisions for a loved one, isn’t even covered adequately.

"Even if people execute these documents, they do everything right, they pay a lawyer to cross the t's and dot the i's, they amend them every time they move or change their address, they carry them with them 24/7, every minute, everywhere that they go so they have them when they need them they still often get ignored and it turns into a tragic situation."

The conversation this afternoon came hours after members of the public were able to address commissioners. Nadine Smith, the executive director of Equality Florida, was one of three during public comment to urge commissioners to implement a domestic partnership registry.

"Even pulling the information that you were able to pull, some of the forms are inaccurate and if they were executed would not provide the protections that you intended."

Another supporter, Mike Long, said he is in a committed opposite sex relationship.

"After she had a recent health crisis that caused her to go into emergency surgery at Tampa General and caused her to be hospitalized for four days. Luckily, we were very lucky and very grateful that everything went okay and that she's fine and that she recovered. Fortunately for her she is from out of this country, she's an American citizen but her family all lives out of this country so had anything had gone wrong, had there needed to have been any medical decisions made or any sort of, God forbid, any sort of end of life decision or burial decisions, there was no one in this country who could have made that for her. That was a very scary choice because I, who she considers to be her family here, would not have been able to make those choices."

Long said the packet doesn't do enough.

"In my opinion it's not nearly sufficient enough. I know as young people these forms would be very complicated and I wouldn't feel comfortable looking at them without a lawyer. I don't have any money to afford a lawyer. Domestic partnership was very simple, it was very easy to get. We just went down to the city and got it easily."

One person spoke in favor of the measure Higginbotham called “Important Life Decisions”. Terry Kemple, a conservative activist, said the packet should be enough for domestic partnership registry advocates.

"This seems to me to be a non-divisive way to provide for rights that were requested as part of the debate a couple of meetings ago about domestic partner registry in the county. The proponents of the registry were nearly unanimous in their assertion that the registry was all about granting rights to unmarried couples. If that was, in fact, their motivation for lobbying for the registry then they should be here applauding this agenda item."

Commissioners Higginbotham, Crist, Murman and Hagan voted in favor of the legal packet instead of a proposal by Commissioner Kevin Beckner to continue research on the issue. Commissioners Les Miller and Mark Sharpe sided with him. But Sharpe said a domestic registry should just be passed now.

"I think a part of a right is not a whole right. A whole right is where we should be."

The City of Tampa has passed a domestic partnership registry as well as Pinellas County, St. Pete, Gulfport and several other cities in the Tampa Bay area. Pinellas County, which had a Republican majority at the time of their vote, passed it with only one no-vote.

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Kemple suggests that there may be an ulterior motive in proposing a domestic partnership registry, something like promoting equality for same sex couples and we know equality isn't something that conservatives tend to support. I'd suggest that there's an ulterior motive in denying the partnership registry to any couple, including heterosexuals. Would the County still be forcing unmarried couples to dance through hoops if only heterosexual couples would benefit? From my point of view, the anti-gay sentiment is getting in the way of granting rights to all unmarried couples simply because they choose not to participate in an archaic religious ceremony.