Civil union bill stalls in Senate committee; sponsor says, ‘Stay tuned’
Feb 20, 2013
By JAMES A. SMITH SR.

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2013 Legislative Session

TALLAHASSEE (FBW) – A measure that would allow for civil unions, granting legal relationship rights to people who aren’t married, stalled Feb. 19 in a Senate committee, although the sponsor suggested a narrower version may be brought back for consideration.

Before a vote could kill it, SB 196 was pulled from consideration by its sponsor, Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, when remarks by members of the panel made it clear the measure wasn’t going to survive the day in the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, of which Sobel is chairwoman. Before pulling the bill, the committee rejected by voice vote an amendment by Sobel substituting her original version of the measure.

“I can count,” Sobel said before moving to temporarily postpone a vote on the original bill.

Suggesting the possibility of offering a new bill with a “narrow definition, narrow scope,” Sobel noted serving as chairman of the committee “gives me another bite at the apple. So, stay tuned.”

Citing measures adopted by various Florida counties and municipalities, she said, “Maybe we do need an incremental approach.”

BUNKLEY
Courtesy WTBN Radio
After the committee meeting, Bill Bunkley, president of Florida Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Florida Baptist Witness, “We will see this bill again this session.”

That the bill was heard at all was considered success by Sobel and her supporters.

She thanked Senate President Don Gaetz for referring the bill to her committee, even though it was also referred to five other committees for consideration.

Sobel has pushed the civil union bill for several years and never managed to get a hearing. But this year, Gaetz referred the bill to Sobel’s committee – virtually guaranteeing it would be heard at least once.

“I’m opposed to Sen. Sobel’s bill, but I don’t think we should ever fear the debate,” Gaetz, R-Niceville, told the News Service of Florida in a Feb. 19 interview after the committee action.

“As chair of the committee, she had the prerogative to agenda the bill and give it a hearing and a full debate, public testimony, questions. That’s what happened today,” Gaetz said. “I would imagine Sen. Sobel will make a decision for herself whether she believes she has the support to move the bill forward or not.”

STEMBERGER
John Stemberger, president of Florida Family Action, told the Witness debate is good. “However, I wish we had the right debate. I wish we had the debate about marriage and why it’s important to society because that really gets to the fundamental issue involved here,” he said.

“I also think that bad ideas shouldn’t be considered and so this should never have seen the light of day in this committee,” Stemberger said.

Whatever its future in Sobel’s committee, the bill faces an enormously uphill battle. It would need the approval of five more committees over the next two months, just to pass the Senate. Passage in the overwhelmingly Republican House would seem unlikely as well.

A line of Florida residents, including some local elected officials, came to the committee to urge panelists to give some of the rights that married people have to those who either don’t want to marry or can’t marry legally because they’re gay. A number of them talked about the trouble they have with child custody issues, or problems they would face trying to be with a partner in the hospital who was nearing death.

“We are treated as legal strangers at the moment that the people we love need us the most, when tragedy strikes,” said Nadine Smith, an activist with Equality Florida, a gay rights group.

Many of those who opposed the bill said there are other legal ways to address the problems – Stemberger said good estate planning and other legal arrangements could address the issues raised by gay people who testified, including one woman who said same-sex couples were made to feel “less than human.”

Even a more narrow measure tailored after those adopted by some Florida counties and cities is unacceptable to Stemberger as “bad public policy.” Among other reasons, he rejects such approaches because “they are usually an incremental approach to achieving gay marriage,” he said, citing briefs by gay rights organizations currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bunkley told the committee his organization, which represents the interests of the Florida Baptist Convention in Tallahassee, opposes the bill.

Citing the Florida Marriage Amendment, Bunkley said, “The proposed provisions of SB 196 would infringe on the sole protections afforded to the institution of marriage between a man and a woman as defined by our state constitution.”

Sen. Nancy Detert, a moderate Republican from Venice who said she supports a domestic partnership registry effort in Sarasota County, said she couldn’t support the bill because it was too broad and likely had constitutional problems.

“It’s just like a walking lawsuit as far as I’m concerned,” said Detert. “Sad to say, I can’t support this bill today because it’s just too broad.”

Expressing appreciation to Sobel for “creating this conversation,” Detert insisted that phone calls to her office opposing the bill “made zero impact on me.”

Detert dismissed as “laughable” claims that having domestic partnerships is harmful to marriage.

Sen. Jeff Clemons, D-West Palm Beach, expressed disappointment the measure would not advance and denounced opposition to the bill on moral grounds as bigotry.

“This is a moment in time that we’re going to remember – five, six, seven, ten years from now,” he said. “And we’re going to look back then and people who voted against this bill are going to be viewed in a very negative and poor light. And people who stood up for the rights of Floridians are going to be viewed as pioneers.”

Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, was sympathetic to some concerns raised by citizens to the committee, but said he could not support the bill because it violates the Florida Constitution.

“I respect and I see the points that were made here today and many of them I hope that we can resolve,” he said. “But, again, I do think the marriage covenant and the creation of life has a very, very special place in law and in our culture.”

With reporting by News Service of Florida.

Related Coverage:

2013 Legislative Session

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