Barring any legal hurdles from the state, Lawrence is poised to become the first city in Kansas to legally recognize gay partnerships.
A majority of commissioners Tuesday night said they would support a program that would create a domestic partnership registry to provide legal recognition to gay couples who are barred by state law from marrying.
"I think this is an idea that doesn't hurt anyone," City Commissioner Boog Highberger said after hearing a half-dozen people speak in favor of the program and no one who opposed it.
But commissioners stopped short of formally approving the idea, which also would allow heterosexual couples who choose not to marry to register. Instead, they asked staff members to seek an opinion from new Attorney General Paul Morrison to determine whether the registry would violate a Kansas constitutional amendment that bans gay marriage.
Supporters of the registry, though, left City Hall pleased. Several said the fact no one came to the meeting to speak against the proposal showed Lawrence had become more open-minded about the issue of sexual orientation.
The registry is the first major issue dealing with gay rights since 1995 when the city passed an ordinance - despite outcries from an organized opposition group - that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation.
"I think maybe people are recognizing that we are not a threat to anyone, and they realize that most of us are just regular guys and gals who want to live our lives and love who we love," said Maggie Childs, who is gay and the leader of a local group that is supporting the registry.
The domestic partnership registry would not automatically grant the legal rights that married couples have to gay or lesbian couples. The registry also would not automatically require the city or private employers to begin offering health care benefits to employees' domestic partners as granted for spouses.
But supporters of the ordinance said the registry, which would be run by the city clerk's office, would help people involved in a domestic partnership provide the necessary documentation to show to employers who willingly offer health insurance benefits to partners of employees.
Domestic Partnerships Registry
- 6News video: Commission moves toward domestic registry (01-09-07)
- BLOG: The Lawrence City Commission debates the domestic partnership registry (01-09-07)
- Domestic partnership registry would be 1st in state (01-08-07)
- City Commission agenda for 01-09-07
- City Hall staff report on domestic partnership registration
- City of Boulder's Domestic Partnership Registration Program
- An example of what the registry could look like (12-23-06)
- Domestic partner registery considered (12-22-06)
- 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)
Bruce Ney, a Lawrence resident who is gay, told commissioners that he is employed by AT&T, which requires documentation from a government to prove that a domestic partnership exists before it will extend family benefits.
Other speakers said there were several Fortune 500 companies operating in Lawrence that offer the benefits to people who can show they're in a partnership.
Details to come
City Commissioner David Schauner, who earlier this week said he hadn't formed an opinion on the issue, said the number of large companies offering benefits to domestic partners swayed him.
"It seems shortsighted to deny those folks a benefit that their employers are willingly offering," Schauner said.
Details of a Lawrence registry would have to be developed by the city. The program likely would include a fee to cover its costs. It also would include specific requirements on what type of proof must be shown by a couple before they are considered domestic partners.
Schauner, Highberger and Commissioner Mike Rundle all said they supported creating the registry. Mayor Mike Amyx stopped short of that. He said the idea made some sense but wanted to hear from the attorney general's office before making a decision.
"I think we need to find out how broad of authority we have," Amyx said.
Commissioner Sue Hack was absent.
Commissioners did say they were not interested in requiring employers to begin offering health benefits to domestic partners.
'Welcome and anti-discrimination'
Rundle, who brought the issue to the commission, said he viewed it as "simply an extension of that sense of welcome and anti-discrimination" that the city has been promoting since it approved the ordinance in 1995 banning discrimination in matters of employment or housing based on sexual orientation.
Commissioners also didn't discuss whether the city should change its policy on offering benefits to the domestic partners of employees. Currently, the city does not do so. Several commissioners predicted the city would request information on that subject if a domestic registry is put in place.
City Manager David Corliss said he would have a conversation soon with the attorney general's office to determine how long it might take to receive an opinion on the matter.
City staff members have been doing research on the legality of such a registry, which has been used in several Midwest cities. Staff members said it was difficult to determine whether a Kansas court would find it legal given that the law had never been tested in the state.
"If it is drafted carefully, I believe it could withstand a challenge," said Toni Wheeler, the city's interim director of legal services.