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Friday, January 26, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle woman shares story to aid push for domestic-partner bill

Seattle Times staff reporter

OLYMPIA — In a packed Senate hearing room Thursday, Charlene Strong told how she rushed to Harborview Medical Center last month to be with her dying partner but was turned away because they weren't married.

The Seattle woman shared her story in hopes that lawmakers would support a domestic-partnership bill, which would grant same-sex couples and older unmarried adults some of the rights offered to married couples.

"As the minutes ticked by I kept wondering, what if she dies without me holding her hand," Strong said. "What if she dies without knowing I told her I loved her."

An overflow crowd showed up for the hourlong hearing on Senate Bill 5336.

Critics called the legislation a stepping stone to same-sex marriage and argued that domestic partnerships should be offered to other adults besides gays, lesbians and heterosexuals 62 years and older.

Strong told the Senate Government Operations and Elections Committee that she risked her own life wading into the couple's flooded basement during the powerful Dec. 14 storm, but she was unable to save Kate Fleming, her partner for the past decade.

Fleming, a well-known audiobook narrator, died after being trapped as floodwaters filled the studio of their Madison Valley home.

Strong said she had to contact Fleming's relatives in Alexandria, Va., to get permission to be at Fleming's side at the hospital.

"This bill is exactly what I experienced in real life a month and a half ago."

The legislation would give gays, lesbians and older heterosexuals the right to visit a partner in the hospital, inherit their property without a will and make funeral arrangements, among other things.

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It would establish a central state registry of domestic partnerships. Couples would have to file an affidavit of domestic partnership with the office and pay a filing fee.

Opponents of the bill argued it has constitutional flaws and should be expanded to apply to all adults who want a domestic partnership, such as siblings who care for each other.

"This bill excludes other citizens of our state who would significantly benefit from its provisions," said Jeffrey Smith, a Spokane attorney.

Cheryl Haskins, executive director of Allies for Marriage and Children, opposed the measure on similar grounds, but also argued that "the sponsors of this bill have said it's the first step to legalizing same-sex marriage in this state. That's what this bill is about."

Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the lead sponsor of the bill, said the push to broaden the legislation to include people other than gays and seniors is an attempt to confuse the issue.

"This is about intimate relationships," Murray said.

Staff reporter Andrew Garber contributed to this story.

Elliott Wilson: 360-236-8169 or ewilson@seattletimes.com

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