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SAN FRANCISCO-Controversy continues to surround San Francisco's domestic partner benefits law.

The Roman Catholic archbishop of San Francisco has sent a letter to Mayor Willie Brown, requesting an exemption from the law for Catholic Charities, a non-profit corporation the Church owns.

In November, San Francisco voted to require businesses contracting with the city to give registered domestic partners benefits equal to those offered to employees' spouses. The ordinance takes effect in June (BI, Nov. 11, 1996).

The letter from Archbishop William Levada says the new law forces the Catholic organization to recognize relationships contrary to the denomination's beliefs.

Mayor Brown rejected the archbishop's request, saying the organization must comply with the law. The mayor reasoned that Catholic Charities contracts with the city not as a religious organization but as a non-profit organization.

Even employers wanting to comply are having difficulty. Small businesses cannot buy benefits for domestic partners, said Stephen Cornell, president of the San Francisco Small Business Advisory Commission. Only Kaiser Permanente provides the benefits to companies with fewer than 50 employees, and that comes with restrictions, he said. One way around the new law is for small businesses to stop offering spousal benefits, eliminating the need to provide partner benefits. But "that is sort of throwing out the baby with the bath water," he said.

Last month, another employer balked at the new law. United Airlines, which decided not to provide domestic partner benefits to its San Francisco employees, has received a one-week adjournment of the Board of Supervisors' hearing to discuss the airline's decision (BI, Jan. 20). The hearing is scheduled for today.