SPOKANE — The Spokane City Council has approved extending benefits to unmarried partners of city employees, if their labor unions want to negotiate for those benefits.
After nearly three hours of emotional testimony, the council voted 5-2 in favor of the "domestic partnership benefits" ordinance.
"It's about respect, dignity, justice," said council President Dennis Hession, who sponsored the measure and won enough yes votes to override any potential veto by Mayor Jim West, who previously had said he was against the measure.
Hession was joined by council members Joe Shogan, Cherie Rodgers, Al French and Mary Verner. Councilmen Brad Stark and Bob Apple voted no.
Stark said he was worried about the costs of extending benefits.
Apple also worried about the costs and said he found the measure morally suspect because unmarried employees could use the benefits as a lure to entice a partner into a relationship.
During testimony, supporters said extending benefits was a matter of workplace equity. Opponents warned that such steps undermine the institution of marriage and put government in the position of condoning alternative lifestyles.
Opponents also said the change was against God's will.
"I hate to get God into it," Rodgers replied.
The ordinance would allow domestic partners to obtain health-care benefits, city-sponsored life insurance and pension rights. Employees could take paid leave from work to attend to emergencies or illnesses involving their partners.
To qualify, employees and their partners of the same or opposite sex would have to submit an affidavit declaring their domestic relationship.
Labor unions will have to bargain to include the benefit in future contracts.
Currently, only 17 nonunion employees, plus the City Council, qualify for extended benefits.
One estimate put the cost of extended health benefits at $176,000 or more if all city unions get it included in their contracts.
Morality was a major focus in Monday's debate.
Mary McDowell said the measure would condone fornication.
"What in the world are you people doing?" she asked.
Patrick McCord said the ordinance endorses "the perversion of homosexuality."
That brought a response from Chris Erickson, who said: "I am a gay youth. This is not a choice for me. I don't see why I am discriminated against."
"This ordinance is about workplace equity and not creating separate classes of employees," said Brad Read.
Joe Cavanaugh, president of Local 270, Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees, spoke in favor of the change.
"We consider it a matter of basic human dignity," he said.
The contract for Local 270, the largest union in city government, runs through 2006.
Stark sought amendments requiring domestic partners to grant durable powers of attorney to one another as a way to demonstrate their commitments. That failed.
He sought another amendment requiring domestic partners to enter a community-property agreement.
That also failed.