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Gay-rights groups are getting bills passed
Same-sex marriage, key measure, face Senate showdown
By Bill Ainsworth
San Diego UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
August 30, 2005
SACRAMENTO – For two years, the focus of gay-rights advocates has been on passing legislation that's headed for a major showdown in the Senate this week – a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage.
But during the same period, gay and lesbian groups have succeeded in moving less-publicized bills that advance homosexual rights in a wide variety of areas, ranging from insurance to the military.
This year, they expect to pass bills aimed at reducing discrimination against gays in political campaigns, banning discrimination against gays and lesbians by businesses, and expanding the rights of domestic partners.
They also expect to pass a resolution that would put the Legislature on record as opposing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that prohibits openly gay people from serving in the military.
Supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage say such intense concentration on that issue has improved the political fortunes of the other bills, allowing many of them to sail through the Democrat-dominated Legislature.
Geoffrey Kors, executive director of Equality California, a gay-rights group, said opponents of expanding gay rights and benefits have diverted much of their attention from most of his group's agenda.
"They are focused so much on marriage that it's enabling these other issues to move forward," Kors said.
Randy Thomasson, president of the Campaign for Children and Families and backer of a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, basically agreed.
"We're focused on defending marriage," he said.
The success of the less-publicized gay-rights bills reflects a growing view among California voters and courts that gays and lesbians should be treated the same as others in employment, housing, benefits and even parenting, said Brad Sears, executive director of the Williams Project at UCLA, which studies sexual orientation law.
"They are filling in the gaps in discrimination law," he said. "It's pretty well accepted that sexual orientation shouldn't be the basis for discrimination."
Last week, the California Supreme Court expanded the rights and responsibilities of same-sex parents, ruling that they should be treated the same as other parents.
In recent years, the nonpartisan Field Poll has shown that most Californians support domestic partnership rights for same-sex couples, but they still oppose same-sex marriage.
The Legislature, which has passed a variety of legislation in the past to expand gay benefits, has approved a bill this year intended to prevent discrimination against homosexual candidates.
Assembly Bill 866, sponsored by Assemblyman Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, would prohibit the use of "any negative appeal based on prejudice against gay and lesbian people" by candidates who sign the Code of Fair Campaign Practices.
The code, which is routinely signed by political candidates when they file to run for office, is a voluntary pledge. By signing, a candidate agrees to refrain from using a negative appeal against his opponent based on race, sex, religion, national origin, physical health status or age.
Eddie Gutierrez, spokesman for Equality California, said the bill would be the first of its kind in the nation.
"We're hoping it will help avoid homophobic campaigns," he said.
But opponents say the language is vague and could be used to unfairly portray those who support traditional marriage and families.
"In reality, candidates are going to be pressured to sign it or they're going to be labeled as hatemongers," said Karen Holgate, legislative director of the California Family Alliance, which opposes the bill.
Meanwhile, the Assembly yesterday sent to the governor a measure that would prohibit businesses from discriminating against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Assembly Bill 1400, sponsored by Assemblyman John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, would amend the Unruh Act, a key California civil rights law.
"It would make sure that gays and lesbians are treated the same as everyone else by businesses," Gutierrez said.
But Holgate believes it will force business owners to betray their religious beliefs, go out of business or face lawsuits.
"It's going to open up the door to suing employers," she said.
Officials from Equality California also expect the Legislature to pass a bill by state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, that would extend death benefits to partners of public employees who retired before the domestic partnership law was expanded this year to include death benefits.
Under the legislation, Senate Bill 973, a retired public employee's partner could elect to have death benefits equivalent to those of a spouse if the partner can prove he or she was in a partnership with the public employee.
Last year, Equality California sponsored several bills to end discrimination, including one that required any insurance company that covered spouses in its policies to also cover domestic partners, and another that toughened hate-crime laws.
All those bills were signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the group said. The governor did, however, veto legislation that would have set up a commission that would look into building a war memorial to gay and lesbian veterans.
Schwarzenegger's spokeswoman, Margita Thompson, said the governor wouldn't comment on whether he would sign the gay-rights bills heading his way in the final two weeks of the legislative year because he doesn't discuss pending bills.
Schwarzenegger has said he's unlikely to sign a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage because he believes the people or the courts should decide. In 2000, California passed an initiative stating that marriage is between a man and a woman.
The same-sex marriage bill was defeated earlier this year in the Assembly, which will get another crack at it if the measure passes the Senate this week.
Regardless of how the fight over same-sex marriage comes out this year, Equality California plans to continue to promote legislation in other areas.
"We're going to make sure that gays, lesbians and transgender people get included in all the codes that protect people from discrimination," Kors said.
Thomasson said, however, that the Democrat-dominated Legislature's decision to pass so many gay-rights bills doesn't help its image.
"It sours the public on the Legislature even more than it already is," he said. "These bills show the special-interest agenda of the Democrats."