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Domestic Partner Bill Clears House

By Barry Massey
The Associated Press
    SANTA FE— Gay and heterosexual couples could form domestic partnerships and enjoy the same rights and benefits as married couples under legislation approved by the House on Thursday.
    "This is a bill about fairness and justice," said Rep. Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat. "This bill would offer basic legal protections to same-sex couples unable to marry as well as opposite-sex couples, many of whom are senior citizens and people with disabilities, that choose not to marry for financial reasons."
    The proposal (HB 9), which is part of Gov. Bill Richardson's legislative agenda, will also recognize same-sex marriages from other states as having the legal rights as a domestic partnership in New Mexico.
    The House approved the measure on a mostly party-line 33-31 vote. Two Republicans supported the bill and seven Democrats opposed it.
    The bill goes to the Senate, where a similar domestic partnership proposal stalled last year.
    Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said he was "cautiously optimistic" the Senate would approve the proposal.
    If the legislation is enacted, New Mexico will join 10 other states and the District of Columbia in recognizing domestic partnerships, according to supporters.
    Under the proposal, domestic partners would have a right to obtain medical coverage through their partner's health insurance plan or a right to visit a partner in a hospital.
    Other benefits include the right to take family medical leave to care for a partner who is ill, the authority to make end-of-life decisions for a partner, property rights in a partner's pension and inheritance rights.
    Domestic partners would also have the same responsibilities as married couples in child custody and visitation issues and paying child support.
    Opponents said the bill would undermine the legal framework and "sanctity" of marriage.
    "Domestic partnerships are just another word for marriage. It is all semantics. I believe and my constituents believe that we must protect the sanctity of marriage as between one man and one woman," said Rep. Nora Espinoza, a Roswell Republican.
    Rep. James Strickler, a Farmington Republican, said, "My concern is, by accident or on purpose, if this domestic partner bill should go forward that the courts may construe for gay marriage."
    Espinoza said, "If this bill passes, courts will not be able to favor traditional families involving one man and one woman over a homosexual couple in matters of adoption."
    But supporters strongly disagreed that domestic partnerships would harm the traditions of marriage.
    "Is this bill contrary to God, contrary to marriage? And the answer is no. Not a single married couple in this state will get divorced because of this bill. Not a single couple that is engaged ... will cancel that wedding as a result of this bill. Not a single straight person will become gay as a result of this bill," said Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, an Albuquerque Democrat.
    Under the legislation, couples could receive a certificate of domestic partnership by registering with a county clerk and paying a $25 fee. A couple could petition a district court to dissolve or annul a domestic partnership.
    "I believe that a cornerstone of social justice is respect for the dignity of the human person," said Rep. Antonio Lujan, a Las Cruces Democrat. "And respect for the dignity of the human person means respect without bias or bigotry."
    The state of New Mexico— as an employer— already extends benefits to domestic partners of government workers. Richardson implemented that policy with an executive order soon after taking office in 2003.