Couple registry studied

Request focuses on gay partners

John Gutierrez-Mier, San Antonio Express-News
August 18, 1999 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

Bexar County officials have asked the state attorney general's office for an opinion on whether the county should do what only one other county in Texas is doing: registering domestic partners.

Such an arrangement would allow unmarried couples, including same-sex partnerships, to document their status for employers that offer workplace benefits, including health insurance, to domestic partners, regardless of marital status.

Same-sex marriage is illegal in Texas, but a registry of domestic partnerships has been in place in Travis County since 1993, officials said.

The legal implications of such a registry were sufficiently murky to prompt Bexar County officials to seek clarification from the state when asked by a local gay activist to put his "declaration of domestic partnership" on file.

Bexar County District Attorney Susan D. Reed wrote to Texas Attorney General John Cornyn last month, asking whether County Clerk Gerry Rickhoff should accept and file such declarations.

Michael McGowan, a member of the city's Log Cabin Republicans and chairman of the board of directors of the Gay and Lesbian Center of San Antonio, had asked Rickhoff to create the registry in June.

"We're hoping to bring dignity and affirmation to homosexual couples across Bexar County," McGowan said Tuesday.

"The central issue here is that marriagelike relationships already exist. All we're asking for is legal justification."

The proposed filing would require a sworn statement from two individuals who are unmarried but live together.

The document, McGowan said, would serve as a declaration that the individuals share in each other's lives in a committed relationship and are responsible for each other's financial responsibilities.

"In June, I was approached by Michael as to the possibility of establishing a domestic partners registry," Rickhoff said. "I knew about a similar program operating in Travis County, but I decided to seek additional clarification on the issue."

Heather Browne, a spokeswoman with the attorney general's office in Austin, said Reed's request is being reviewed.

Browne said the attorney general's office will issue only a legal opinion, which doesn't have the same force as a judge's ruling, and a negative response would probably not directly affect Travis County's registry.

"It won't be a binding legal document," Browne said. "It's a clarification of law for the requester and shouldn't impact Travis County."

Diane Hardy-Garcia, executive director of the Austin-based Lesbian and Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, said she would be surprised if the Texas Attorney General's Office offered a favorable opinion.

"The biggest question surrounding this issue is why it's necessary. It's essential because in addition to the emotional issues surrounding one's relationship, this can be used to extend partnership benefits as well," she said.

Currently, Travis County is the only county in Texas where same-sex partners can file a declaration of domestic partnership.

The program was established in 1993 and filings are available for a $9 fee, said Rosa Cardenas of the Travis County clerk's office.

"When it was first established, we were very busy, especially with people filing from other parts of the state," she said. "Right now, we average about two to three couples per week who want to establish partnerships."

McGowan said local, state and national governments are behind the times when it comes to domestic partnership questions.

"More and more it's private employers who are taking the lead in dealing with these issues," said McGowan, who pointed to corporate policies that treat employees' partners like married spouses.

"Until marriage or domestic partnership is allowed for same-sex couples, an element of dignity is denied too."

Some states have debated proposals to legalize same-sex marriages, but none have become law. State court systems similarly have wrestled with the issue.

After Hawaii's Supreme Court opened the door to recognition of gay marriages, a 1996 federal law allowed states to ignore such unions licensed elsewhere.

Vermont's Supreme Court considering whether to uphold a 1975 interpretation by that state's attorney general that Vermont's constitution forbids such marriages.