Gay couples and other unmarried domestic partners in Salt Lake City soon will have unprecedented legal recognition in Utah.

The Salt Lake City Council unanimously approved an ordinance Tuesday to create a citywide domestic-partnership registry, providing a mechanism by which employers can extend heath care and other benefits to adult designees of their employees.

Councilman Eric Jergensen called the registry an "outgrowth" of the City Council's action in February 2006 that extended health benefits to adult designees of city employees, including unmarried partners, siblings, long-term roommates and parents.

"The result of that (adult designee) ordinance is that many people have received benefits who otherwise would not have received them," Jergensen said. "It's been a very good thing for the employees of our city."

Mayor Ralph Becker, who submitted the ordinance to the City Council on his third day in office, has called the domestic-partnership registry an opportunity for the city to provide all of its residents the same level of equality, dignity and respect.

"This is a compassionate ordinance that recognizes that families do not always come in the same packages," echoed council chairwoman Jill Remington Love.

City officials said residents likely will be able to begin registering their domestic partnerships in about two to four weeks.

All five people who spoke at a public hearing about the ordinance did so in support of the registry, offering thanks to Becker and the City Council for the action.

Will Carlson, speaking on behalf of Equality Utah, called the move an important step toward "a fair and just Utah."

Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake City, also spoke in support of the ordinance, saying "it's a greatly needed step in the right direction to help families that are struggling for a number of reasons."

Biskupski also cautioned the City Council to be very clear about the intent of the ordinance and why it's being put into place, because "that will carry over into the Legislature."

Biskupski cited SB267, sponsored by Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, as an attempt by state leaders to "knock down the work of this council."

"It doesn't have to be that way," she said.

Buttars' bill seeks to prohibit counties or municipalities from establishing a registry to recognize a domestic partnership other than marriage. It also calls for any such registry already created to be invalid.

Buttars has said the registry violates the letter and spirit of both the state's constitutional amendment and state code limiting marriage to a man and a woman.

Salt Lake City officials disagree. According to the mayor's office, the city has legal authority to create a domestic-partnership registry under the general welfare clause of Utah code, which grants the city the power to "preserve the health and promote the prosperity, improve the morals, peace and good order, comfort and convenience of the city and its inhabitants."

The mayor's office also contends that the ordinance does not conflict with the state statute defining marriage.

"(The domestic-partnership registry) does not establish a marriage; it does not change marriage," Jergensen said. "It in no way challenges the state's attitudes about marriage. It does not create a separate class of relationships."

The ordinance allows qualifying couples who take part in the voluntary program to receive a certificate from City Hall attesting to their domestic-partner status. In order to qualify, individuals must be in a relationship of mutual support, caring and commitment, and be responsible for each other's welfare.

In addition, registrants must be each other's sole domestic partner, over 18 years old, competent to contract and share a primary residence in Salt Lake City.

Those wanting to register need to obtain from the city and fill out a declaration of domestic partnership form, which must be signed by both parties and notarized. It then would be kept on file in the city recorder's office.

The fee for filling a domestic-partner declaration is $25. All administrative costs of the program will be absorbed by the city recorder's office.

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