By Alan Finder
Through an executive order, the Mayor created a city registry in which city residents or nonresident municipal workers who live together could register as unmarried "domestic partners." A second executive order detailed several ways in which such partners will now be treated the same as married spouses by the city.
Registered domestic partners who work for the city will be entitled to the same unpaid leave that has long been available to married city workers to care for a new child.
And all registered partners, whether or not they work for the city, will have the same visitation rights at municipal hospitals and city jails as married spouses. They will also have the same standing as married couples in qualifying for apartments and in inheriting a lease in residential buildings owned or overseen by city housing agencies.
The State Legislature, and to a lesser extent the City Council, have authority over the legal definitions of marriage and the rights enjoyed by married spouses in matters like life insurance, inheritance and health benefits. The Mayor's executive orders cannot in themselves extend the rights of unmarried heterosexual or homosexual couples in such areas, mayoral aides and many legal experts said.
But his actions yesterday had both broad symbolic importance and considerable political significance. He received strong support from gay and lesbian voters in the 1989 campaign, and had promised to grant to the live-in partners of homosexual city employees the same health benefits offered to spouses of married city workers.
But he said yesterday that he could not grant these benefits without City Council approval, and he endorsed a Council bill that would do precisely that.
Many representatives of gay and lesbian organizations who joined the Mayor for his announcement at a City Hall news conference described his endorsement of the Council bill and his two executive orders as major steps.
Paula L. Ettelbrick, the legal director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national organization that works for gay and lesbian rights, called the Mayor's actions "an absolutely historic and significant step in recognizing that all families have a place in the city of New York."
Ms. Ettelbrick said a domestic partnership should not be dismissed as a mere piece of paper. "When you're left out of it, when you're not allowed the equal recognition, when you're not allowed certain benefits, when you're not even recognized as your family's having existence in our society, it means a whole lot more than being a piece of paper," she said. But Ms. Ettelbrick and many of the more than two dozen representatives of gay and lesbian groups who worked with mayoral advisers to formulate the two executive orders said Mr. Dinkins had not gone far enough. They said they would keep fighting until the city granted full health benefits to the partners of homosexual city workers.
Some leaders of gay and lesbian organizations, and even some members of the working group that helped the Mayor's counsel, George B. Daniels, create the executive orders, sharply criticized Mr. Dinkins yesterday. They contended that his actions were largely symbolic.
Some argued that Mr. Dinkins had the legal right to grant medical benefits on his own, while others said the Mayor would not have fulfilled his campaign pledge until he settled a lawsuit filed four years ago by three homosexual teachers seeking to force the city to offer health benefits to their live-in partners.
"I think a lot of people in the gay and lesbian community will be dis- appointed by this, and they will want full benefits," said Councilman Thomas K. Duane, Democrat of Manhattan, the first openly gay Council member. Mr. Duane is a member of the Mayor's working group but did not attend the news conference. He said afterward and he would be not be satisfied until Mr. Dinkins granted full health benefits and settled the lawsuit.
Ronald W. Madison, a Brooklyn elementary-school teacher who is one of the plaintiffs in the suit, said the Dinkins administration had sought unsuccessfully to have the lawsuit dismissed, contending that the teachers had not right to sue.
"Registering is a nice gesture, but it's a little late," Mr. Madison said. "In my view, the Mayor is bidding for the lesbian and gay vote without giving any real substance."
The political significance of the Mayor's actions were underscored by a statement by City Council President Andrew J. Stein, who is expected to challenge Mr. Dinkins in the Democratic mayoral primary next September. Mr. Stein, who has been seeking support among gay and lesbian voters, called on the Mayor to drop what he termed the city's "shameful opposition" to the teachers' lawsuit.
But the Mayor said he could not settle the lawsuit because of complex legal reasons. One legal hurdle, he said, was a ruling by the State Insurance Department that forbids health insurance companies to grant benefits to unmarried domestic partners.
The Mayor described his executive orders a "a major step toward insuring that the thousands of individuals involved in long-term committed and caring relationships are extended the same rights as individuals bonded through the traditional concept of the family."
To register as domestic partners, couples will have to fill out and submit a registration certificate to the City Clerk. Both partners must be at least 18 years old and be unmarried and unrelated, and they must attest that they have "a close and committed personal relationship," according to the certificate prepared by the city.
They must also swear on the certificate, which must be signed by a notary public, that they were living together prior to the date of the certificate. There is no specific minimum time that couples must have lived together before they can become domestic partners, and there is no requirement that they prove that they have lived together.
Couples will also be able to declare that they are no longer domestic partners by filling out another form that indicates termination of the relationship. This too must be notarized and filed with the City Clerk.
About 25 other cities and counties in the United States have either created domestic partnerships or offer some forms of parental leave or medical benefits for domestic partners of unmarried government workers. The cities include San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, Washington, Berkeley, Calif., and Madison, Wis.
Mr. Daniels, the Mayor's counsel, and many other legal experts said the domestic partnerships would have no legal significance outside the specific areas outlined in the Mayor's executive orders. But some lawyers specializing in matrimonial law said lawyers might use the new category in court cases, like those involving contested wills, to prove that a gay couple had a long-term relationship.
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