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NEW YORK CITY EYES PARTNER MANDATE

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NEW YORK-Lawyers for the New York City Council have been asked to draft a domestic partner benefits ordinance similar to the one San Francisco adopted late last year.

The New York bill's backer, Councilman Tom Duane, D-Manhattan, wants the New York bill to be modeled on the San Francisco ordinance that requires city contractors to offer their employees domestic partner benefits equal to the spousal benefits provided.

At the same time, controversy over San Francisco's ordinance, which becomes effective in June, continues to build.

Mr. Duane expects a draft of the New York ordinance to be completed within two months. After that, the bill will be introduced to the council for assignment to a committee and debate, which Mr. Duane predicts will occur by summer.

"This is another step towards equality for people who are not allowed to be married or choose not to be married, primarily the lesbian and gay community," said Mr. Duane, an openly gay council member. "Whatever benefits are provided to married employees should be provided to their employees with domestic partners. To not do so is discrimination."

Mr. Duane's proposal differs from San Francisco's in one major provision. The San Francisco bill requires coverage only for those partners registered with the city. New York also has a registration policy for domestic partners, but the proposal would permit all employees with a domestic partner to apply for the coverage, not just registered couples. Couples should not be required to make a public statement about their status in order to receive the benefits, Mr. Duane said. His proposal would require employees to provide some proof of their partner status to employers, he said.

Mr. Duane-describing himself as "cautiously optimistic" that the ordinance will pass-said he does not anticipate much opposition from council members or the public, but does expect initial resistance from businesses.

But, "People will see that it's good business to provide domestic partner benefits," he said.

The ordinance will have nationwide ramifications by forcing companies that contract with New York City to offer domestic partner benefits to all their employees, Mr. Duane said.

"I think it will have more of a backlash," said Paul Sullivan, senior consultant with Aon Consulting in Newburyport, Mass. "Now you'll be hitting a lot of employers with a mandate from the city. I think employers will take a real exception to it."

"A mandate really does not go well with employers even if they concern issues that employers feel are important," he said.

Mr. Sullivan does not see other cities adopting similar ordinances. "Those cities that are considering it will go ahead, but it won't convince other cities to do it."

Still, observers are not surprised that New York is considering this type of legislation.

"Next to San Francisco, New York would be the next place to see this happen because of the liberal nature of the city, and New York has a large population that could benefit from it," said Laurel Pickering, managing director of the New York Business Group on Health.

She said studies by companies offering the benefit indicate the costs are low. "The actual population that uses it is very small," she said.

Meanwhile, one week after San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown rejected Archbishop William Levada's request to exempt Catholic Charities from the bill, the archbishop further pressed his case. In a statement delivered at a press conference, the archbishop said the bill forces Catholic Charities, a non-profit corporation owned by the church, to violate church beliefs. He has suggested the matter might lead to a lawsuit.

"Even with today's changes in the workplace, to seek to equate domestic partnership with the institution of marriage and family runs contrary to Catholic teaching-indeed to the beliefs of most religious and cultural traditions-and as recent polls have shown, to the basic convictions of the great majority of Americans," he said. "I believe the ordinance imposes an unconstitutional condition on the recognized right of a religiously affiliated organization such as Catholic Charities to contract with the government for the secular services it offers to clients, while managing its internal operations in a manner consistent with its religious principles."

The archbishop also countered supporters of the bill's assertions that denying benefits to domestic partners is discrimination. "I reject the notion that it discriminates against homosexual, or unmarried heterosexual, domestic partners if they do not receive the same benefits society has provided to married employees to help maintain their families."

San Francisco contracts for more than $5 million a year with Catholic Charities to provide services to groups including the poor and AIDS patients. The archbishop said that no organization can perform Catholic Charities' services at the same low price, and therefore it would hurt the city to cancel the contract.

In response, Mayor Brown reiterated his position that Catholic Charities cannot be exempt from the ordinance, his spokeswoman said. Nevertheless, he scheduled a meeting this week with the archbishop and members of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors to address their differences. One possible compromise is to require compliance with the ordinance but make its language acceptable to the archbishop.

"Religious organizations are no different from any other entity. They cannot discriminate," said Tom Ammiano, a member of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, responding to the archbishop's statement.

He said despite the search for a compromise, "the mayor and the Board are firm that there are no exemptions," he said.

Mr. Ammiano also disputed the archbishop's statement that Catholic Charities can't be replaced, saying other agencies can perform the work and provide the benefits at the same price.

United Airlines also is balking at providing domestic partner benefits as a condition of the city's approval of the airline's lease at San Francisco International Airport. The city offered United a two-year lease without forcing compliance with the new ordinance. But after two years, United's lease would be renewed only if it provided domestic partner benefits. United wants a 25-year lease exempt from the ordinance. A Board of Supervisors hearing that had been scheduled for last week to discuss the airline's next step was postponed at United's request.