ORLANDO, Fla. - Orange County, Fla., home of Walt Disney World, became the second county in Central Florida to pass a domestic partnership ordinance May 22. That day would have been the 82nd birthday of LGBTQ rights pioneer Harvey Milk.
The county commission passed the Health, Education, and Life Protections and Domestic Partnership Registry ordinance by a 6-1 vote. The measure, which goes into effect July 6, will allow unmarried individuals to gain legal recognition and some legal rights for their relationships.
"I'm really excited that two years of work came to fruition today," said Joe Saunders, state field director of Equality Florida, which along with the Orlando Anti-Discrimination Ordinance Committee (OADO) spearheaded the campaign for passage.
Provisions that allowed punitive damages and attorney's fees to be awarded to those who won lawsuits brought for ordinance violations came under fire from commissioners. They voted to strike the punitive damages, citing the potential expense to county government if its agencies were sued, and the fact that only plaintiffs' attorneys would have been awarded fees if they prevailed.
"Removing the punitive damages makes it a little bit weaker than it could have been, but it's still a powerful law that's going to help a lot of people," said Saunders.
Commissioners, in response to activists' concerns, also added "Domestic Partnership Registry" to the ordinance title in order to clarify that it, in effect, creates domestic partnerships although it uses the terms "designating person" and "support person" in place of "domestic partner."
Orlando and Orange County will now give those who are registered identical rights: health-care facility and jail visitations, and the ability to make emergency medical, funeral and burial decisions for each other and to designate each other as a pre-need guardian, and to participate in making decisions about the education of minor children in the household. Notification of partners is also required in emergencies.
Around 20 people spoke in favor of the measure with only three speakers expressing opposition. Many audience members wore red to signify their support.
Orlando civil rights attorney Mary Meeks, of OADO, said the measure would benefit more than 100,000 Orange County residents in unmarried partnerships.
Meeks told commissioners about two friends who "literally went through living hell" when one of them became seriously ill and then died.
"Although they had the recommended legal documents [to try to establish their rights as partners], they did not have the rights you are granting here today," said Meeks.
"It was heartbreaking to witness what they went through, and this ordinance will prevent future tragedies," she said.
Vicki Nantz made a documentary about Ryan Skipper, a 25-year-old Florida man who died in 2007 after being stabbed 19 times. His murderers, two unemployed methamphetamine addicts with criminal pasts, targeted him simply because he was gay.
"Our culture was complicit in Ryan's murder because it taught his killers that Ryan's life was less valuable than theirs. That he was less deserving of respect, dignity, equality and life itself," said Nantz.
She said passage of the ordinance would tell the world that the county doesn't condone discrimination or exclusion. (Article continues below video)
The Rev. Brad Rice, a minister at Orlando's Joy Metropolitan Community Church, said his faith tradition calls for compassion and fairness for all families.
Rice, who wore a red T-shirt emblazoned with "Would Jesus Discriminate?," spoke about a man from a neighboring county who was counseled by the church after the death of his longtime partner. The lack of legal rights for unmarried partners allowed the dead man's biological family to bar the surviving partner from assisting with or attending his memorial service.
"To add insult to injury, the volunteer chaplain sent by rescue personnel told this hurting and grieving widow that his partner was already in hell, and that he would be going there, too," said Rice.
"We need for all families, no matter how they're configured, to be recognized legally, so that in times of crisis pain is not added to pain," he said.
Orlando's registry has become a model for other local governments around the state, according to Equality Florida. Tampa, Gulfport, Volusia County, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Sarasota, Pinellas County and Belle Isle now have or may adopt similar measures. Volusia became the first Central Florida county to do so on May 17.
Photo via Equality Florida.