Lawrence could become the first city in the state to legally recognize gay partnerships.
City Commissioner Mike Rundle has asked staff members to research an ordinance that would create a domestic partnership registry that would be run by the city.
A constitutional amendment approved by Kansas voters nearly two years ago outlaws gay marriage in the state. The domestic partnership registry would not automatically grant the legal rights that married couples have to gay or lesbian couples. But it would serve as a legal recognition of a couple's relationship.
"It would indicate that the city is welcoming and supportive of its gay community members," said Maggie Childs, who heads the Lawrence chapter of the Kansas Equality Coalition, which asked Rundle to seek the registry. "In my mind, the primary benefit is symbolic."
Lawrence would join about 75 other governments that have created a registry, according to a list compiled by the City and County of San Francisco Human Rights Commission. In the Midwest, the cities include Kansas City, Mo., St. Louis and Iowa City, Iowa.
If city commissioners tackle the issue - they haven't yet scheduled it for a hearing - it could restart a local debate over what role government should play in protecting homosexuals from discrimination. In 1995, city commissioners passed an ordinance making it illegal to deny housing or employment to someone based on their sexual orientation.
The Rev. Leo Barbee of Lawrence's Victory Bible Church, was among a vocal group of opponents of that ordinance. He said he was not surprised the idea for a domestic registry has surfaced since Douglas County was the only county in the state that did not vote in favor of the constitutional ban on gay marriage. But he said the idea of a registry is misguided.
"I think God set up a standard that marriage is one man and one woman," Barbee said. "Anytime we go against that, I think we are going against what God said in his word. I know that will cause some confusion or cause some people to say I'm homophobic.
"I'm not against gays or lesbians as people, but I just feel it is not the right thing to do. My opinion doesn't mean anything. There is a standard that God has set up for what is right and what is wrong, and that's basically what I'm saying."
Childs said her group is prepared for the debate, if it comes.
"People can have their own opinions about what will send you to heaven or hell, but as long as we're in this country, that shouldn't be the role of government," Childs said.
- Lawrence city staff memo on domestic partnerships (.doc)
- City of Boulder's Domestic Partnership Registration Program
- Lawmakers approve bill to legalize civil unions (12-15-06)
- Brownback: Judge should avoid gay marriage cases (12-09-06)
- Gay marriage ban goes to high court (12-01-06)
- Same-sex divorce poses legal challenge (11-23-06)
Rundle, who is gay, said he agreed to bring the issue to City Hall, in part, because he thought it could produce some tangible benefits. He said there are private employers who offer health benefits to the domestic partners of employees. But Rundle said it can sometimes be onerous to produce all the documentation to prove that a domestic partnership is in place each time a gay individual changes jobs.
A domestic registry would allow gay employees to produce a certificate similar to a marriage license showing that a domestic partnership exists.
The registries do not place any requirement on businesses or other organizations to begin offering benefits, such as health insurance, to the domestic partners of employees.
But supporters of a Lawrence registry said they hope it would be the first step to convincing the City of Lawrence and other government agencies to begin offering benefits to employees' domestic partners, just like a spouse is offered benefits.
Estimates on how much it would cost the city to begin including domestic partners as part of their benefit packages, aren't available.
Childs said she hoped that a registry also would be a "small, first step" in gaining marriage equality for gays in the state. Childs said that would be a tough political battle in Kansas, but said gay couples should not be denied the rights that married couples have when it comes to child custody, insurance rights, and medical matters.
City Manager David Corliss said the city's legal staff hasn't yet reached an opinion on whether a domestic partnership registry would withstand a legal test in Kansas.
Toni Wheeler, the city's interim director of legal services, said there are instances in other states where cities have been sued over extending employee benefits to domestic partners. She also wrote that the registry could be challenged as being in violation of the Kansas Constitution. It states: "No relationship, other than a marriage, shall be recognized by the state as entitling the parties to the rights or incidents of marriage."
Rundle said he wasn't letting the possibility of a court battle factor into his decision-making process.
Other commissioners who were contacted said that they needed more information about the proposal before determining whether they could support it.
Domestic partnership registry
Details for how a domestic partnership registry would function in Lawrence haven't been determined, but here is how it has worked elsewhere.
¢ Both members of the partnership normally are required to go to a city office - such as the city clerk's office - to sign documents in front of a notary attesting that they are in domestic partnership.
¢ Basic requirements for a relationship to be deemed a domestic partnership usually include that both parties be age 18 or older, live together, have an exclusive and mutual relationship, share the necessities of life and are financially interdependent.
¢ Some communities simply allow couples to sign a sworn statement that they are in a domestic partnership. Others require proof of joint ownership of property or joint residency, such a utility bills that show both names, proof of joint bank accounts or other similar documents.
¢ Most programs include a filing fee to cover the costs the city has to administer the program.
¢ Some communities allow heterosexual couples to register as domestic partners if they are not married. Other communities, however, do not allow heterosexual couples to be part of the registry because there is no law prohibiting them from marrying.
¢ Most registries also have a process where couples can dissolve a domestic partnership.
In Iowa City, Iowa, the program has existed since 1994. City leaders there said that the registry - which currently has 67 couples - generally has been well received. But Dale Helling, an assistant city manager, said he couldn't say that the registry has resulted in significant changes in the community's culture.
"I think it is something that has had an obvious positive impact on those who use it," Helling said. "But for the rest of the community, it is just a routine thing that we have now. You really don't hear much in the community for or against it."