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Cleveland Heights Begins Domestic Registry

Monday, January 26, 2004 at 10:55 AM

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Today Cleveland Heights City Hall opens its doors to unmarried and gay couples to sign up for a groundbreaking domestic partner registry, a first in Ohio and the first registry in the nation adopted by voters. Today's registry comes less than a week after state legislators adopted a Defense of Marriage Act, banning same-sex unions. ideastream's Tasha Cook has this report.

Keli Zehnder: Audrey, you can’t play with that. (baby gurgle) What?

Keli Zehnder is a stay-at-home mom living in Cleveland Heights, who wants the best for her two small children, Claire and Audrey.

Keli Zehnder: We’re going to put the clip in the bag. We are? Excellent.

Zehnder is not so different from Tracie Moore, also a homemaker living in Cleveland Heights, who cherishes time with her family.

But how they voted and campaigned on the Cleveland Heights domestic partner registry couldn’t have been more different. Zehnder sees the opening of the registry today as a milestone for the gay rights movement.

Keli Zehnder: I think that the idea that the city acknowledges my relationship feels very immense to me.

The ballot initiative, which passed in November, allows unmarried couples - gay or straight - to register their relationship with the city. It’s offered to both city residents and non-residents. While not a legally binding contract, registrants may be able to use it to visit their partners in the hospital or inherit property. The registry is also expected to be used by older straight couples. Some supporters say the registry offers symbolic recognition of same-sex relationships.

Zehnder’s partner of seven years, Deb Smith, with the family campaigned tirelessly for the registry with Heights Families for Equality, or HFE.

Deb Smith: HFE worked really hard. But as hard as they worked, the registry wouldn’t exist if Cleveland Heights wasn’t a progressive, forward-thinking community that wanted to honor all of its citizens.

David Caldwell, a steering committee member of Heights Families for Equality, and his wife enjoy all kinds of benefits and legal rights. He says voters have made life less unequal for married and unmarried couples.

David Caldwell: I’m very proud that we in Cleveland Heights have really shown other communities the way to to move forward on this issue and to help gays and lesbians - hopefully a little bit in everyday life but certainly in the political sphere - to be just a little bit less afraid of being assertive.

Tracie Moore of Cleveland Heights Families First Initiative is also proud of her organization’s campaign efforts against the registry. Earlier, she and others challenged City Council when it extended benefits to the domestic partners of city workers. Moore considers this latest political effort to be an affront to what she calls traditional family values.

Tracie Moore: We’re now allowing domestic partnerships and civil unions and other names for what really is a counterfeit marriage and marriage really is a time-honored and time-tested tradition and any attempt to redefine that or to dilute it is going to have very serious, individual and societal concerns.

William L. Gaddis, also of Cleveland Heights Families First Initiative, calls the registry a de facto marriage license.

William Gaddis: I’ve never been for it because any thinking citizen knows that it is merely a ploy, because the long term goal of the homosexual agenda is to make Ohio a same-sex marriage state.

But last week’s passage by Ohio legislators of the Defense of Marriage Act, banning same-sex marriages, makes gay marriage in Ohio a long shot. Governor Bob Taft is expected to sign the bill into law soon. Local supporters of the registry anticipate that the Defense of Marriage Act may result in legal challenges.

City Councilman Jimmy Hicks has already taken legal action, called a taxpayer action, to prevent the city from offering the registry. Hicks accuses Cleveland Heights of wasting taxpayers’ money on the registry, abusing its powers and violating Ohio’s existing marriage laws. Hicks hopes to find support for his position in the courts.

Jimmy Hicks: Cleveland Heights residents, they did vote for it. But, you know, again, I have an opportunity to take this to a venue that hasn’t had the opportunity to look at it.

Caldwell and others predict the registry will withstand legal challenges. Nonetheless, these actions upset Zehnder.

Keli Zehnder: I certainly did not participate in getting the domestic partner registry passed with the hopes of having the city of Cleveland Heights to have to spend money to defend it. That will break my heart if that happens.

Cleveland Heights Mayor Ed Kelley says nothing will stop Cleveland Heights from offering the domestic partnership registry.

Ed Kelley: Until some judge comes up with some great court order or whatever, we’re going to go ahead. And this is a great day for Cleveland Heights and for the people that want to register and do this stuff.

Keli Zehnder: I did it. Popeye. Sweet Pea.

Zehnder and Smith plan to register at Cleveland Heights City Hall today. For them, it’s about being recognized by the city as a family. In Cleveland Heights, Tasha Cook, 90.3.

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