Aug. 21 2013 12:00 AM

As a symbolic nod to marriage equality, East Lansing City Council considers a domestic partner registry


East Lansing could soon become the second city in the state to create a domestic partner registry, a largely symbolic way of recognizing those who legally cannot, such as same-sex partners, or choose not to.

“East Lansing has long prided itself on being at the forefront of advancing rights for LGBT people,” said East Lansing mayor pro-tem Nathan Triplett. “Michigan’s discriminatory ban on marriage equality … is arguably the most sweeping ban in the country. We have very few options when it comes to relationship recognition in Michigan. Until that ban is struck down … a registry like this is the most we as a city can do to acknowledge and celebrate these families in our community at this time.

“It serves to illustrate the stark contrast (between) the rights of same-sex and opposite-sex couples in the state.”

East Lansing’s seven-member Human Relations Commission unanimously recommended on Aug. 7 the City Council approve the draft ordinance. It spells out who can join the registry and the process for doing so. The Council was scheduled to have its first discussion on it at a work session Tuesday night. Triplett said it could be adopted early next month.

The ordinance is modeled after Ann Arbor’s domestic partnership ordinance adopted in 1991. Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy and lobbying group, lists Ann Arbor as the only other Michigan city with such a registry. The organization lists 80 such registries in cities and counties nationwide.

The ordinance defines domestic partners as those who are in a “relationship of mutual support, caring and commitment”; “share the common necessities of life”; are not blood related in a way that would bar marriage in the state; are not married or in any other domestic partnership; and are at least 18 years old. Partners would declare their relationship with the City Clerk’s Office with two witnesses. The fee to join would not exceed the costs for filing a marriage license with the county, which is $20 for residents and $30 for non-residents. The registry is not limited to permanent East Lansing residents and is open to Michigan State University students and those from outside the city. At least one would have to sign an affidavit notifying the clerk’s office when the relationship has ended.   

East Lansing City Clerk Marie McKenna-Wicks said her office is “ready and willing” to administer the registry and is “more than willing and happy to accommodate it.” Accounting for the fees in a budget amendment, to be approved by the Council, is likely the last step before launching the program, she added.

William Sawyer-Todd, chairman of the Human Relations Commission, echoed Triplett that the ordinance is a signal that East Lansing “values all families of all nature and are inclusive of that.”

Sawyer-Todd and his partner of 13 years, Michael, said it’s “pretty likely” the two will join the registry. “We’ve talked about it for years, but it wasn’t available,” he said.

Sawyer-Todd, an East Lansing resident for 34 years, noted the “tidal wave of change in the last 10 years alone” of the community’s acceptance of the LGBT community. “It’s on a scale I never dreamed of when I first came out in the 1970s,” he said. As for the registry, “It’s a symbolic gesture by and large, but a very important one.”

While Sawyer-Todd said he hasn’t heard the concern, some may balk at the notion of joining any type of registry (just ask your local gun owner). But Triplett, who said that conversation has come up in discussions, noted it’s still “purely optional” to join. Moreover, he and the city attorney agree that personal information — names and addresses — would be kept private and exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests.

“I don’t think there’s a scenario in which the city would be willing to divulge that information,” he said.

East Lansing also has an Other Eligible Individual, or OEI, benefits policy for city employees. It provides health and dental benefits for city employees and a qualifying individual who “have committed personal relationships other than a traditional marriage.” It does not include spouses, children and their descendants, parents or parents’ descendants. In 2011, Michigan’s Public Act 297 struck down such benefits for public employees. However, a federal lawsuit in Michigan following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act in June led to a preliminary injunction against P.A. 297, at least temporarily restoring such benefits for domestic partners.

While technically separate from the city’s OEI benefits, Triplett said the two policies strike the same chord, “These are both steps taken by the city in an effort to ensure equal rights of employees regardless of sexual identity” or relationship preference, Triplett said.

Added Sawyer-Todd on the proposed registry: “This is more than just recognition by a municipality. It’s about recognition by our community.”