Domestic partner benefits offered more frequently

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More local governments and businesses are telling their employees — gay and straight — that wedding bells don't have to ring for them to get the same benefits their married co-workers are receiving.

Marriage equality advocates hope those initiatives are creating momentum for more significant changes in Florida, which does not permit same-sex marriage and has no statewide domestic partnership registry.

"Eventually you reach a tipping point where statewide protections are possible," said Stratton Pollitzer, a spokesman for Equality Florida.

Palm Beach County commissioners this month approved a new tax-equity benefit that compensates its employees in domestic partnerships for the taxes they pay on health insurance benefits that married couples don't pay.

Wilton Manors, which approved a flat $750 tax-equity benefit for its employees receiving domestic partner benefits, is now moving to require that companies doing business with the city offer the same employee benefits to domestic partners as they offer to married couples.

Even cities that haven't offered domestic partner benefits in the past are moving in that direction. Boca Raton last week approved those benefits for its employees and also amended its anti-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation, gender identification and gender expression. Pembroke Pines is now discussing offering domestic partner benefits to its employees.

"South Florida is in the middle of an aggressive effort to get local cities to recognize the importance of tax-equity and equal-benefits ordinances," said state Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, who was in Fort Lauderdale last week as director of Equality Florida's Equality Means Business initiative.

Changes are occuring in private business as well. Fort Lauderdale-based AutoNation announced a few weeks ago it would offer employee health insurance to legally married gay couples, even in states that don't recognize the marriages. However, it will not provide coverage to unmarried domestic partners.

The local government changes are passing with almost no opposition, a major shift from even a decade ago.

Boca Raton Council member Anthony Majhess found himself alone on the council opposing the domestic partner benefits, although he did support the tougher wording in the city's anti-discrimination policy.

Majhess was concerned that domestic partner benefits go too far in trying to help one group — gays who can't legally marry — by opening up benefits to unmarried opposite-sex couples.

"Eighty-three percent of the people filing [in the county] for domestic partnerships are not in the LGBT community," Majhess said. "Marriage was kind of the litmus for where you draw the line on [spending] taxpayer dollars. Where do you draw the line now?"

Without marriage equality, using domestic partnership laws is the only way proponents have of offering some level of equality to same-sex couples. They also say it recognizes that families come in a lot of different shapes, including couples who choose not to marry.

Rand Hoch, president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, celebrated the recent victories in Palm Beach County and Boca Raton, and an unexpected move last week toward domestic partner benefits in Palm Beach Gardens.

"Next up is going to be the city of Boynton Beach," Hoch said. "It's our next biggest [city] in Palm Beach County that doesn't offer domestic partner benefits."

While Majhess said the issues are more appropriate at the state and national levels, proponents see local government action as the most fertile ground for change in Florida.

"I think there's still some education that needs to be done in Tallahassee," Saunders said.

The moves are a positive for Steve Glassman of Fort Lauderdale, who married Rande Morris — his partner of more than 40 years — on Aug. 28 in Buffalo, N.Y.

Glassman and Morris were one of the first couples to sign up when Broward County created its domestic partnership registry in 1999.

"In certain states, in certain places, unfortunately, we have to work incrementally," Glassman said.

"I would have always prefered to [marry] in Florida, but you know Florida," Glassman said. "If South Florida had been its own state, that would have been a whole different ballgame, but we're in Florida."

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