There is room even as the public heatedly debates social issues in an election year for decency and pragmatism to carry the day. That's the case with a measure the Tampa City Council is set to approve this week that would enable unmarried couples to be treated more fairly as they live in committed relationships. And Tampa's good example may be spreading to St. Petersburg, Gulfport and elsewhere as elected officials recognize that domestic registries can provide a cultural and economic competitive advantage.
Tampa's domestic partnership registry would be the first of its kind in Tampa Bay. It would give unmarried adults who consider their significant others as family some rights that married couples already enjoy. Partners would be notified in any emergency, have the right to visit each other in the hospital and make some medical decisions, and be allowed to help raise any children in the home. These are everyday interactions that committed couples have a right to share without any delay, harassment or legal interference.
The measure is a good-faith outcome of a search for ways to preserve dignity and privacy at the local level while avoiding the larger and more explosive debate over legalizing gay marriage. The protections apply to both same-sex and heterosexual couples, and they promise to ease the hardship for thousands during a time of crisis. The measure also marks another important step in the battle against bigotry. Council members did a good job by committing to make real-life improvements for local residents and not an empty political statement.
Tampa's registry would be similar to those in Orlando, Gainesville, West Palm Beach and Key West, as well as Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. And while this would be the first registry of its kind in the bay area, the city of Tampa, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the St. Petersburg Police Department already offer health benefits to same-sex domestic partners of their employees.
Tampa council members unanimously gave the change preliminary approval last month and a final vote is set for Thursday. The atmosphere is in sharp contrast to the vitriol that critics displayed 10 and 20 years ago when local officials in Hillsborough debated whether to adopt a range of human rights ordinances. Mayor Bob Buckhorn said not a single one of the hundreds of phone calls and emails he received has been in opposition to the measure. "That tells me not only that as a city we have come a long way," Buckhorn said, "but that people see this registry as basic human decency."
This is a long overdue step to recognize basic rights of committed couples regardless of gender, and it should serve as a challenge for other area governments to step up as well.