benefits to domestic partners was a relatively new concept when
I started teaching "Rights of Domestic Partners" at the
University of Southern California Law School in 1985. The
idea was so new, in fact, that my class was the first of its
kind at any law school in the nation.
Berkeley was the only American city with domestic partner health
benefits for municipal employees. West Hollywood was the
only city with a domestic partner registry. Levi Straus
and the Village Voice newspaper stood out, virtually alone in
providing private sector employee benefits for unmarried
happened in the intervening years. Instead of being an
oddity, employment benefits and legal protections for domestic
partners are becoming part of the political and economic fabric
of American life.
There are now
more than 8,000 public and private employers which offer such
benefits as a part of their employee benefits packages.
Dozens of cities and counties, and even a few states such as
California and New Jersey, have registries which allow unmarried
couples to declare their family status, thereby gaining a
variety of legal protections formerly reserved to married
benefit programs, registries, and legal protections are serving
the needs of several diverse populations. The most obvious
beneficiaries, of course, are same-sex couples who have been
locked out of government recognized marriages.
But there are
a growing number of heterosexual couples who want domestic
partner benefits and legal protections. These include
younger couples who are cohabiting as a prelude to formal
marriage as well as those who are choosing unmarried partnership
as an alternative to marriage.
couples who are now divorced or widowed are choosing domestic
partnership because, if they remarry a new partner, they would
lose valuable survivor benefits from a prior marriage.
With baby boomers now reaching retirement age, the ranks of
seniors living in domestic partnerships is bound to grow.
now cohabit prior to marriage, some for several years, before
they decide to marry or go separate ways. Many of these
unmarried families resent being treated as if they are
strangers. They want their family relationships recognized
by employers and by the government.
also many unmarried blood relatives living together and who feel
that they deserve some legal protection and economic benefits
too. Why should domestic partner benefits be limited to
couples with sexual relationships? Why can't two siblings
or a parent and adult child get similar benefits and
don't have a strong lobby, like the gay and lesbian population
does, the notion of broadening partner benefits to include blood
relatives is getting some attention these days. The Salt
Lake City Council will consider such a proposal this week, the
same week that the mayor of Washington D.C. is expected to sign
a new law there which gives major legal protections to domestic
partners, including blood relatives.
But as gains
are being made for domestic partner benefits, opposition to such
programs remains strong. Most of the opposition stems from
religious objections to government recognition of adult
relationships other than marriage.
legislator has introduced a bill to prohibit state universities
from using government funds for domestic partner benefits.
This bill is a reaction to a recent decision of University of
Florida trustees to provide benefits to unmarried partners of
opposition from Republican legislators, Democratic Governor Jim
Doyle has found a way to offer dental benefits to domestic
partners of Wisconsin state employees. The new plan begins this
highest court heard arguments this week in a case that pits
Mayor Bloomberg against the New York City Council. The
council passed a law, despite a mayoral veto, requiring
businesses which contract with the city to offer partner
benefits if they offer spousal benefits. The law is
similar to ordinances in San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles,
A bill has just been introduced
in Washington to amend the Family Care Act in that state to
allow employees to take extended leave to care for a domestic
partner with a serious illness. Federal law is limited to
spouses, parents, and children.
With domestic partner benefits
becoming so mainstream, opponents of these measures are finding
it harder to have them overturned through the ballot box.
In California, for example,
proponents of a ballot initiative to prohibit domestic partner
benefits stopped their efforts, at least temporarily. They
failed to gain sufficient signatures to place a constitutional
amendment on the ballot this year.
Anti-domestic-partner forces in
Arizona are beginning to wonder if their ballot measure will win
favor with voters this November. A recent poll by the
Arizona Republic shows that just 38 percent of Arizona
registered voters would vote to ban domestic partner benefits
programs by state and municipal employers.
Given continuing demographic
trends -- half of the nation's households are headed by
unmarried adults now -- and given the advances made by domestic
partner advocates over the past 20 years, it is reasonable to
predict that domestic partner benefits are here to stay.
In a few more years, people will
look back and wonder what all the fuss was about. Most
Americans will soon realize that domestic partners are part of
our nation's mosaic of family diversity.
Unmarried America 2006
Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an
attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family
diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.
Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried
email@example.com. Unmarried America is a nonprofit
information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and