TAMPA — The president advocated for gay rights in his inaugural address this week. Some states have gone so far as to allow same-sex couples to wed.
But in Hillsborough County, commissioners Thursday refused to take the more modest step of granting unmarried couples, gay or straight, the ability to make decisions for a partner who is ill or dying.
Bucking a regional trend, commissioners rejected a proposal to create a domestic partnership registry, something their counterparts in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Pinellas County have already enacted.
Opposing commissioners, all Republicans, characterized the proposal as an extension of big government. They said those who support a registry should take the personal responsibility to hire a lawyer and achieve essentially the same thing at their own expense.
Victor Crist, leading the opposition, said it would give those who sign up a false sense of security that by signing a registry in Hillsborough that it would give them rights outside the county. He said he spoke as someone who has had to take care of elderly friends or relatives through worsening health and ultimately death.
"I don't view it as gay or straight or religious or political," Crist said. "We had to take personal responsibility to take care of business. We didn't look to government or someone else to do it for us."
Commissioner Al Higginbotham cited his religious beliefs in rejecting the measure.
"I deeply emphathize with those who desire the unique and special status, privileges and responsibilities afforded to the marriage relationship," he said. "However, my Christian faith, my recognition of thousands of years of societal precedent and my understanding of our nation's laws prevent me from supporting an expansion of that unique and special status."
Board members rejected the measure 4-3, with support coming from Republican Mark Sharpe and Democrats Les Miller and Kevin Beckner, who is the county's first openly gay commissioner. Sharpe introduced the proposal a week ago, pitching it as a way to treat all county residents equally without extending special rights to any one group.
"These rights are fairly straightforward," Sharpe said. "I can't look at this item and think that it is anything but the right thing to do."
Sharpe had recommended that Hillsborough County essentially adopt the same policy that Tampa did in April. It would ensure that those who sign up for the registry can visit a hospitalized partner and make medical decisions if that person is incapacitated.
It also would allow committed couples who share the same residence to make funeral arrangements for a partner or participate in education decisions for the child of a loved one.
From the moment he floated the proposal a week ago, Sharpe was attacked by the religious right, even as he won kudos from gay rights advocates and notably young, straight professionals. Social conservatives see domestic partnership registries as a step toward legitimizing same-sex marriage, or as granting special rights to gay couples.
Opponents of the measure have called him a traitor, and some speakers Thursday suggested Sharpe had abandoned the principles he advocated when he first entered politics nearly two decades ago.
"If this board endorses a domestic partner registry, you're in effect sanctioning lifestyle choices that are immoral while disparaging traditional marriage as a God-ordained institution and union between one man and one woman," said Tampa resident Travis Smith. "It is tragic when a community and nation pursue a course of moral depravity."
Terry Kemple, president of the advocacy group the Community Issues Council, said registries or other actions by government to extend discrimination protections for gays have been used in courts to overturn laws, such as one passed by Florida voters that bans same sex marriage.
A greater number of people spoke in favor of the measure. Gay and straight, they talked of their own long-standing relationships with same-sex partners or spoke of gay relatives who deserve the same decency as straight couples.
R. Zeke Fread said he just celebrated his 34th year with the same partner. Yet when he was hospitalized after a serious car accident, his partner was unable to make any decisions about his welfare.
"It is not just a gay issue," Fread said. "It's a human rights issue.
Beckner said he commissioned a poll in September that asked likely voters if they would support domestic partner registries. Of 350 people questioned, 67 percent voted yes. Even among Republicans, a majority said they support the concept, he said
"It's evident with the vote today that a majority of my colleagues are out of touch with Hillsborough County voters and remain shackled by the unbendable ideology of their political masters," he said after the meeting.
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.