TAMPA — When Hillsborough County commissioners rejected creating a domestic partnership registry last month, the most vocal no-voters on the board offered a rationale cited by some opponents of the proposal.
Unmarried couples can secure the protections a registry offers on their own by simply hiring a lawyer or downloading some forms from the Internet, they said.
That's true about one of the rights typically extended by partnership registries — the ability to designate someone who is not a spouse or blood relative to make health care decisions on one's behalf. It gets murkier with some of the others.
"With some of these rights, there is no other vehicle to get them and get them in a manner that you can have any confidence that they're enforceable," said Martha Chumbler, a lawyer with the Carlton Fields law firm based in Tallahassee. "That's why the local ordinances become important."
As important, say advocates, partnership registries grant unmarried couples — gay and straight — modest rights of basic human decency without having to hire a lawyer or running risks by trying to do it yourself.
"These are just basic protections that nobody can really disagree with in good conscience," said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, which advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights and is already planning its next push for a registry in Hillsborough. "Can you do it on your own? The question to me is, why should you have to?"
Hillsborough commissioners have a history of opposing gay rights or recognition. But last month, they came the closest they have in years to approving a priority of gay rights advocates.
They rejected by a 4-3 vote a proposal from Republican Mark Sharpe to create a domestic partnership registry, something other governments in the area, from the city of Tampa to Pinellas County, have approved with little controversy. It would have allowed gay and straight couples who live together to declare their committed relationship.
Sharpe was seeking first for the county attorney's office to craft a proposal. Typical partnerships passed in Florida give couples the right to visit each other in the hospital and make health care decisions for a partner who is incapacitated.
They also grant the ability for partners to make funeral decisions on each other's behalf, to visit a loved one who is jailed or to serve as his or her guardian. They can ensure those who register can participate in the education of a partner's child.
Terry Kemple, president of the socially conservative Community Issues Council, told commissioners that while the idea sounds harmless, it's a step toward legalizing gay marriage. In any event, he said, people can secure the same protections on their own.
"All the things that are included in a domestic partner registry are things that are easily obtainable through contracts," he said.
Commissioner Victor Crist argued the same line of thought, noting he had cared for three elderly friends of his mother after her death. He said he was able to make decisions about their health care after executing legal documents.
Indeed, state law does allow people to designate a health care surrogate to make decisions when a friend or loved one is incapacitated. There's even a downloadable form.
That set off Bentley Lipscomb, former secretary of the state's Department of Elder Affairs and retired head of AARP of Florida, who was in the audience.
"If everyone was a state senator, they probably wouldn't have a lot of trouble either," he said, referring to Crist's former job.
He said many older people start committed relationships after a spouse dies but choose not to remarry out of concern they'll lose benefits. Domestic partnerships offer a remedy for them to make decisions for their new partner. A recent federal regulation prohibits hospitals that receive Medicare or Medicaid from denying visitation rights for partners in gay or lesbian relationships.
President Barack Obama ordered the regulation in 2010 after hearing about a woman who was denied access to her lesbian partner before her death at a Miami hospital. Mary Meeks, an attorney who pushed for partnership registries in Orlando and Orange County, said they can serve as proof of a committed relationship in those instances.
As for other protections a registry offers, she argues there is no other reliable remedy.
"There are seven different rights that would be granted by a domestic partnership registry," Meeks said. "Of those seven, health care surrogacy is the only one you could arguably achieve through a contract."
Many couples may never have a problem making decisions for a partner in a critical situation. But Meeks said it can turn out differently for partners in a gay or lesbian relationship.
They may encounter a medical worker who has problems with gays and lesbians. Some have partners whose families have refused to accept their relationship and seek to intervene in matters of illness or death.
Kate Taylor, an assistant attorney for the city of Tampa who helped craft its registry ordinance, said there are likely ways some of its protections can be achieved by other means. At its core, the registry serves as a policy statement that the city wants to be inclusive to all people.
The preamble to the city's ordinance says as much.
"At a bare minimum, there is some value in that," she said.
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.