Catholic opposition raises concerns with domestic partnership bill

By Steve Terrell: The Santa Fe New Mexican

The battle in the Legislature over a bill to establish domestic-partner rights pits social advocates and lobbyists who normally are allied on a variety of issues against each other.

Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, introduced Senate Bill 183 on Tuesday. As has been the case with previous domestic-partnership bills, it is backed by Gov. Bill Richardson.

Also working for the bill various left-leaning activists, civic organizations and churches. But opposing it are New Mexico’s Roman Catholic bishops, who have stood alongside many of the domestic-partnership proponents in past Legislative fights to end the death penalty and cockfighting, increase minimum wage and to preserve funding for poverty programs.

The church’s opposition last year — after years of staying neutral on the issue — was credited by many on both sides for defeating a domestic-partnership last year by a decisive vote in the Senate.

“I don’t know of any vote that’s changed,” said Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, on Tuesday. Sanchez was referring to last year’s 17-25 Senate vote against the bill.

“But what does have a good chance of passing are bad (budget) cuts,” said Sanchez, who had just spoken at a rally in the Rotunda for those opposing cuts to social programs. “Our time will be divided by the domestic partnership bill. All the advocates should come together to stop the bad cuts from passing.”

Linda Siegle, a lobbyist for Equality New Mexico, a state gay and lesbian rights organization, on Tuesday noted the various issues with which she has worked with the bishops. “The Catholic Church has been right so many times,” she said. “But on domestic partnerships they are wrong.”

The bishops, along with other opponents of the bill, argue that domestic partnerships will open to door to same-sex marriage, which proponents vehemently deny.

“We drafted the bill to address the concerns of the bishops,” Siegle said. “It’s very sad that they’re not interested in assuring the rights of gays and lesbians.

Sanchez said, “The Bishops did agree to talk. We never got to an agreement. It doesn’t mean they were not listening.”

Wirth said Tuesday that his bill is more than 800 pages because it adds the “or domestic partner” phrase to various other statutes that includes the word “spouse.”

The chief objection the bishops had to the previous bill was that it referred to that marriage law. In February, Sanchez told a reporter, “If they just spelled out all the rights you’d get under a domestic partnership and not refer to the marriage law, the bishops probably would drop their opposition.”

“We wanted to clearly delineate domestic partnerships as a civil contract that is not marriage,” Wirth said. The length of the bill “shows you how many rights are at stake,” he said.

At a Monday news conference Richardson promised to push hard for the bill, even though he admitted it will be an uphill battle to pass it. “I think as a state we need to uphold our commitment to human rights,” he said. “And I reject the view that this is a distraction for other issues like the budget. This is important and I want to be sure we do the right thing.”

Supporters of the bill are meeting 6 p.m. tonight at Backroad Pizza, 1807 Second Street for a “phone-a-thon “ to inform people about upcoming events such as an 8 a.m. meeting Monday at First Christian Church, 645 Weber Street, and a noon rally on the east side of the Capitol later that day.

Contact Steve Terrell at 986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com