Senate Recognizes Domestic Partnerships, Allows Needle Exchange in DC; ACLU Applauds Victory for Local Control and Civil Rights

November 7, 2001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union applauded the Senate’s decision today to allow the District of Columbia to finally implement its long-awaited domestic partnership law and to spend local funds on a needle exchange program, calling the vote a victory for the democratic and civil rights of District residents.

“The Senate has taken a bold step forward in ensuring the civil rights of unmarried couples and local control over public health in DC,” said Christopher Anders, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “We’re optimistic that when it gives final approval to the DC budget, Congress will have finally stopped interfering with the rights of locally elected officials in these two important areas.”

The Senate passed the FY2002 District of Columbia Appropriations Bill (S 1543) without controversial amendments that would have banned the District from using even its own funds to run a relatively modest domestic partnership law and implement a needle exchange program. This is the first year that the Senate has passed the spending bill without these riders. The House passed its own version of the legislation (HR 2944) on September 25, leaving in the prohibition on needle exchange but allowing the funding of the domestic partnership provision. A majority in the House, including 41 Republicans, voted down restrictions on the domestic partnership program (226 to 194).

The controversy over domestic partnerships began after the D.C. City Council adopted the Health Care Benefits Expansion Act of 1992, which was intended to allow city employees to purchase health insurance for their partners and would have given hospital visitation rights to other domestic partners in the city.

Later that year – and every year since then – Congress blocked the measure by voting to forbid the city from spending even its own tax money to implement the program. In the nine years since the program’s passage in DC, the city has fallen behind the nation in recognizing rights for unmarried couples. More than one hundred municipalities and eight states in the US have passed a domestic partnership law in one form or another.

Needle exchange has also generated controversy even though approximately one-third of the more than 13,000 residents of the District diagnosed with AIDS – one of the highest rates in the nation – contracted the disease from infected needles. The Senate voted down an amendment from Sen. George Allen (R-VA) that would have prohibited the District from using its own money to fund an effective needle exchange program by a vote of 53-47.

“Had this been anywhere else in the country with the same level of popular democratic support for these programs, they would have been in place years ago,” Anders said. “The Senate finally did the right thing here by affirming local control in the nation’s capital.”

The ACLU’s Letter to the Senate on the DC Appropriations Bill can be found at:

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