US: Florida Senate committee approves bill for same-sex domestic partnership registry

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A Florida Senate committee has approved the state’s first bill to allow domestic partner registration, including specific rights for same-sex couples.

Senator Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood, said that the committee had “made history” by passing the bill, despite equal rights advocates conceding that the bill had little chance of passing this year.

“We look forward to making this reality eventually in the state of Florida because it’s really about fundamental fairness,” she said.

The Senate committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs, passed bill SB 196 by 5 votes to 4 with no debate from lawmakers, and no testimony from LGBT rights advocates, reports the Orlando Sentinel.

The vote had previously been postponed twice because once the bill had to be rewritten, and a second time because one of its supporters were to be absent.

The bill would create a registry for all unmarried couples, straight and gay, and would lay out rights which partners would hold in the State.

The rights specified included guaranteed hospital and prison visitation, the right to make long-term care decisions or funeral arrangements.

It would make the partner able to be notified in case of emergency, and would give couples the same property rights as spouses buying a house together, including inheritance.

Despite admissions that the bill was unlikely to be signed into law in 2013, its supporters hailed it as a success for the gay community in the state.

Mallory Wells, a lobbyist for Equality Florida said: “This is the first time the Florida Legislature has ever voted to recognize same-sex relationships and provide protections for committed couples all over the state of Florida who cannot or choose not to be married.”

Wells said the lobby group had been “celebrating” despite the potential struggle ahead. Wells said: “So this is a historic day certainly for us.”

The bill in its previous incarnation was criticised for being too broadly written and guaranteed all spousal rights to all Florida couples, which prompted its redrafting by Sobel before it went to the committee for a vote.

Religious conservatives in Florida have expressed concern that the bill is a step towards legalising equal marriage in the state. Florida voters banned equal marriage in a 2008 vote to a constitutional amendment.

“The Florida Legislature should have nothing to do with shacking up and redefining marriage,” said Pam Olsen, founder of the Florida Prayer Network.

Orlando lawyer Mary Meeks, who helped draft the bill said there was no comparison between this bill and efforts to legalise equal marriage, most notably because a domestic partnership in Florida would not be recognised elsewhere.

“All we’re talking about is seven really big, big critical human rights for families,” she said. “That’s all.”

The bill has four more stops in Senate committees, and has not yet been heard to the House.

A survey conducted in America this month has revealed support for same-sex marriage has grown to be a “mirror image” of ten years ago, with the majority now in favour of legalisation and many calling for a nationwide law.

The poll found that 58% of Americans now support the legalisation of same-sex marriage, while 36% oppose it.

Another recent poll by Public Policy Polling found that 75% of Florida voters supported at least civil unions for gay couples, compared to 23% who thought there should be no legal recognition.

60% of voters said they had no opinion on the domestic partnership bill with 23% in favour and 17% opposed. The firm wrote that the reason for that result could be that most voters were not aware of bills passing through the legislature.