(News-Press.com) - One Sarasota man is making his way down the Southwest Florida coast planting seeds to make domestic-partnership registries a reality.
For unmarried couples and couples whose marriages are not recognized by the state, it's often seen as their only option to have a say in their loved one's life if tragedy strikes. This includes hospital visits, input into health care decision-making and funeral arrangements.
Ken Shelin, a former Sarasota city commissioner, has already brought the registry to fruition in five places: North Port, Sarasota city, Sarasota County, Venice and Punta Gorda.
Basic legal protections would be available for same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. Although a circuit judge's ruling on Thursday in Monroe County overturned Florida's statewide ban on same-sex marriage in the area dominated by the Keys, Attorney General Pam Bondi's appeal has put a hold on issuing marriage licenses.
"People are living today, they're getting sick today and having health problems today," Shelin said. "This needs to be done even before the courts get around to issuing a decision. These couples need those basic rights to have life happen as it needs to happen."
Shelin, who chairs the state board for the LGBT civil rights group Equality Florida, is also assisting in setting up a list of churches that will perform same-sex marriages if and when the state allows it.
"Every single jurisdiction's vote has been unanimous," Shelin said of the registry. "It's amazing how deep and broad the support is for these ordinances. I got started in the city of Sarasota and I did it because someone came to me and asked, 'How do you do this?' I served on the commission and I understand how the process works. What I'm finding is that this part of the state doesn't respond quickly to issues like this."
He will meet with Cape Coral City Council at its regular Monday meeting July 28 to ask them to move forward with the legislative process for creating such an ordinance. Shelin is also trying to schedule time with Lee County commission and the cities of Naples, Bonita Springs and Fort Myers in coming months. He's working with other local activists, mostly in the LGBT community. Not everyone agrees with the idea of a registry as it applies to same-sex couples.
"When you take the Bible literally, we're not going to endorse approval of same-sex marriage or same-sex partnerships," said Pastor James Wigton of First Baptist Church of Cape Coral. "We're often accused of hate, but we don't hate gay people, we just have a standard that civilized society has lived by for thousands of years outlined in the Bible."
Wigton said it's not about civil rights, but marriage and morality.
"We still have a majority in this state," he said of the 2008 vote in favor of the ban. "But I feel there's still a danger of that changing. … I definitely don't think it's healthy. It's not God's ideal."
Marriage equality proponents see the registry as a Band-Aid over a far larger issue, but Shelly Komito, 64, and her partner, Abbe Forman, 53, of Cape Coral, say it's something. Ideally, they'd like to see a court case out of Tallahassee force the state to recognize their marriage. The lawsuit is pending. They've already lobbied council members and commissioners about the registry, visiting a recent Speed Politics event. The couple moved here from Philadelphia, where domestic partnerships have been recognized for some time.
"It's like being in a time warp," Forman said. "Hopefully the court case will come through and this will be a moot point. But right now after three years of marriage the state doesn't recognize us. … God forbid someone gets sick. It's up to the hospital's discretion to acknowledge our relationship. It's nauseating if you think about it. That's the truth for anybody who isn't married, whether gay or straight."
Forman and Komito noted that in January, Cape Coral received a 10 out of 100 rating from a Human Rights Campaign survey. It was one of the worst in the state as far as LGBT-friendly laws are concerned. An additional 12 points could be earned if the city creates a domestic-partnership registry. Mayor Marni Sawicki asked Finance Director Victoria Bateman to research other ways to improve the city's rating.
"I don't know much about how a domestic registry works and haven't had a chance to really review their PowerPoint," Sawicki said. "I look forward to learning more about how it could impact the city."
When called, most local government leaders said they had not heard of a registry. Over half Florida's population lives in cities and counties covered by domestic-partnership registries.
"Lee County has heard from Mr. Shelin," said Betsy Clayton, a Lee County spokeswoman. "We have no plans at this time to schedule a presentation at a workshop for the Board of County Commissioners. However, staff contacted Mr. Shelin to explain he has the option of speaking during public comment at a regularly scheduled board meeting once the board comes back from recess in August."
Punta Gorda is the most recent government to approve the registry, doing so in April. Twenty couples have registered, receiving laminated identification cards. James Stricklin, 65, of Punta Gorda has known his partner, Debbie OMalley, 62, since they were children. They were two of the first in line to register.
"It's really for hospital-type things, medical-type things, that all citizens should have," Stricklin said. "We're just trying to get everything short of marriage — she'd been widowed twice and I'd been divorced for like five years. We grew up on one of the beaches in the St. Pete/Clearwater area and we lived across the street from each other when we were kids."
Stricklin came to Florida from North Carolina to see her after they spoke on the phone.
"I said, 'Shoot, I'm just a single guy with my son pretty much grown," Stricklin said. "I think if you want to be in a relationship you should be recognized and have choices as long as you're human."
What is a domestic-partnership?
A legal or personal relationship between two individuals who live together in a mutual residence and share a common domestic life, providing for each other's basic needs, but are neither joined by marriage nor a civil union. In existence in the U.S. since 1984 and since 1998 in Florida cities and counties.
U.S. 2010 census data indicates that there are now at least 6.8 million households (over 12 percent of Americans) maintained by domestic partners nationally – a major increase over 2000.
What is a domestic-partnership registry?
A local procedure created by legislation that documents the relationship of two unmarried persons who are co-habitating partners.Used to establish that a family relationship exists and to receive important family benefits now limited to married persons.Created because legal documents that attempt to contractually approximate those benefits/rights are often ineffectual and disregarded.