Three Hillsborough County commissioners said they will vote today in favor of a domestic registry that will allow unmarried people in domestic relationships to make certain legal decisions for their partners.
Mark Sharpe, Les Miller and Kevin Beckner said they will vote to have an ordinance drawn up as a first step toward creating the registry. If the measure is approved, the ordinance would be brought back at a future meeting and then set for a later public hearing.
But getting the necessary fourth vote on the seven-member commission to move the issue forward could prove difficult. Social conservatives are bombarding commissioners with phone calls and emails urging them to vote against the measure.
"We're getting a whole lot more calls on this than we did on garbage and trash," said Republican Commissioner Victor Crist, referring to the intensive lobbying over the commission's decision last year to bid out garbage collection.
Sharpe, who in the past opposed extending medical insurance coverage to unmarried partners of county employees, put the registry issue on the agenda. Commissioners Les Miller and Kevin Beckner, both Democrats, said they were preparing to raise the issue if Sharpe hadn't.
The language does not differentiate between opposite- or same-sex partners, but social conservatives accused Sharpe of reneging on past pledges to oppose the "homosexual political agenda."
The Republican commissioner said he doesn't see the registry as a gay issue but as a common-sense service for taxpaying citizens. Excluding gay couples from the registry would constitute discrimination, he said.
"What I like about this registry is it doesn't ask anybody why," Sharpe said. "It simply states you have the right as an adult to make these basic decisions about your life."
In discussions with County Attorney Chip Fletcher, Sharpe came up with six situations where a domestic partner who signs up for the registry would have the right to make a decision on behalf of his or her partner:
The list is similar to the domestic registry ordinance Tampa's City Council passed in April. Fletcher told Sharpe the rights would be legally defensible in court.
Conservative activists are attacking the issue on two fronts. They say it's an attempt to undermine the Defense of Marriage Act, a state constitutional amendment passed in 2008 with about 62 percent of the vote. Florida is one of 39 states that ban same-sex marriage.
David Caton, who founded the Family First Foundation in Hillsborough County, said gay activists are using domestic registries and other local laws as a strategy to ultimately have the U.S. Supreme Court overturn all state laws that define marriage as between one woman and one man.
"Homosexual activists are getting these types of registries in as many counties as they can to build a political consensus that is going to eventually be used, and is being used, in court cases to nullify the Defense of Marriage Act laws," Caton said.
Opponents also claim that all the "protections" listed in domestic registries are available through simple forms on the Internet. Thus they see the registries as an unnecessary expansion of government.
"The thing you hear the most about this is the heartbreaking, tear-jerker issue, 'I can't go to the hospital and visit my partner,' " said conservative activist Terry Kemple. "If they're awake and alert they can designate who visits them, and also who can visit if they are incapacitated."
Because of the strong reaction from conservatives, the issue has political ramifications for Republican commissioners. Asked Wednesday how they would vote, Crist and two other GOP board members were noncommittal.
"I'm going to listen to the discussion intently," said Chairman Ken Hagan.
Commissioner Al Higginbotham said he had not seen enough information on what Sharpe's measure would entail to decide yes or no.
"It's not going to be that simple," Higginbotham said. "I want some facts before I make a decision."
Crist, like Kemple and other conservatives, said he sees domestic registries as an expansion of government, providing a service that's already available through the Internet or a lawyer.
Asked about the political consequences if he voted for the measure, Crist said, "On an issue like this, no matter which way I vote, there will be political ramifications."
Commissioner Sandy Murman could not be reached for comment.