Domestic registry debate set for tonight

To some, it would be just another list – another pile of paperwork – inside Lawrence City Hall.

But for gay couples in Kansas, where same-sex marriages are prohibited by the state’s constitution, a proposed city domestic partnership registry may be the closest they’ll ever get to a government legally recognizing their relationships.

Tonight, advocates pushing for Lawrence to become Kansas’ first city to create a domestic partnership registry will find out whether there are three votes on the five-member City Commission to make it reality.

From early indications, the effort has more than a fighting chance.

“From what I can tell, there is some support on the commission for passing it,” said City Commissioner Mike Dever, who said he was leaning toward voting for the registry. “We’ve gotten a lot of information on it, a lot of feedback on it.”

The registry would allow unmarried couples to file paperwork at the City Clerk’s Office that would recognize their domestic partnership. As the registry is proposed, both partners would need to be 18 years or older and “live together in a relationship of indefinite duration with a mutual commitment in which the partners share the necessities of life and are financially interdependent.” A registration fee, which hasn’t been set, would be charged.

Supporters of the registry, which was proposed by members of the Kansas Equality Coalition, have said some companies offer health insurance benefits to domestic partners of employees, but the companies require some proof of the relationship. A registry run by the city could fill that requirement, they say.

Dever and City Commissioner Rob Chestnut – both of whom will be addressing the issue for the first time since being elected in early April – said they have heard from far more supporters of the ordinance than opponents.

“I’m looking at it strictly from the perspective of the city has a responsibility to provide service to the citizens, and this would be a service to some citizens,” Chestnut said.

The issue, though, has sparked concern about whether a registry would create an end-run around the state’s prohibition on same-sex marriages. For that reason, state Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, introduced a bill that would ban cities from creating the registries. The bill did not become law during the legislative session.

Chestnut said he was trying to keep the city out of that debate.

“There has been a lot of comment about the broader issues attached to this,” Chestnut said. “Those broader issues are there. You can’t deny that. But what I’m focusing on are the cost and benefits of the citizens, because that is what I think we’re charged to do.”

The registry also has the support of City Commissioner Boog Highberger, who said it would provide tangible benefits to people who sign up and would be a symbolic sign that Lawrence is a welcoming and accepting community.

The state has received a legal opinion from Kansas Attorney General Paul Morrison saying the city would be within its rights to create the registry, as long as it registers only Lawrence residents.

City staff members also have researched whether the city could be held legally liable by companies or others who rely on the registry to confirm partnerships. Staff members have said the city’s legal risks appear small, although they admit there haven’t been many cases on the subject.

Not all questions have been answered for every commissioner, though.

“I know we have a legal opinion that says we can do it, but the bigger question is whether we ought to do it,” said City Commissioner Mike Amyx. “Is this the function of local government? That’s the big question in my mind.”