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Richmond council aims to offer benefits to city employees in domestic partnerships

city hall facade
Crixell Matthews
VPM News File
Narrisa Rahaman, executive director Equality Virginia, said extending domestic partner benefits to all employees gives the city an opportunity to attract and retain a talented workforce while also embracing inclusivity.

The state not recognizing that kind of civil union presents a hurdle.

A measure patroned by Richmond City Council President Kristen Nye extends benefits to the domestic partners of city employees. The proposal received unanimous approval during the first council meeting of the year.

Narissa Rahaman, executive director of statewide LGBTQ+ advocacy organization Equality Virginia, said that offering and extending domestic partner benefits to all employees gives the city an opportunity to attract and retain a talented workforce while also embracing inclusivity.

“Even after nationwide marriage equality, it's still important that municipalities and employers respect the diverse family forms that exist here in Richmond. We want to make sure that includes expanding domestic partner benefits to make sure that includes all families, no matter what that looks like,” Rahaman said. “For many LGBTQ couples, some of us choose to get married and some of us choose to not, and that has really no implication on the commitment we make with our spouses or partners.”

A domestic partnership is when two individuals, whether of the same or opposite sex, reside together and share a domestic life without being married or united through a civil union. Despite the increased prevalence of domestic partnerships as an alternative to marriage, Virginia ceased to acknowledge domestic partnerships or civil unions following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. The state also does not recognize common-law marriage, which is when two individuals cohabit and consider themselves married without undergoing formal marriage procedures.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are nearly 9 million cohabitating couples nationwide. Currently, California; Maine; Nevada; Oregon; Washington state; and Washington, D.C., legally recognize domestic partnerships. Additionally, Hawaii offers reciprocal beneficiary relationships, an arrangement akin to domestic partnerships.

In 2006, Virginia passed a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, despite then-Gov. Tim Kaine's objections. The Supreme Court's decision in Obergefell v. Hodges nullified Virginia’s ban in 2015, mandating that all states issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Last year, now-U.S. Sen. Kaine and Sen. Mark Warner urged the General Assembly to repeal the earlier ban. The pair said they aimed to protect marriage equality by highlighting that the state ban poses a threat to the rights of same-sex couples to marry in Virginia if the Obergefell ruling is ever overturned.

Later, during the 2023 General Assembly session, a modified proposal to repeal the amendment faced opposition in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates. Despite efforts by supporters to secure bipartisan votes by removing any explicit endorsement of LGBTQ+ equality, the measure failed. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, LGBTQ+ advocates have voiced concerns regarding the stability of marriage equality.

“We saw last year what happened with Roe v. Wade, and the Supreme Court weighing in on overturning that. There is a real palpable fear among LGBTQ couples, could that happen to marriage equality?” Rahaman said. “One reason why we want to repeal the ban that exists in our current constitution is solely to make sure that we're affirming the marriages and the relationships that exist in every corner of Virginia.”

The Human Rights Campaign is the largest LGBTQ+ political lobbying organization in the United States with roughly 3 million members. HRC annually produces the Municipality Equality Index, a report that provides a review of local laws and policies that affect LGBTQ+ people and their families. In its assessment, Richmond fell shy of a perfect score, having points deducted for the lack of city services offered to LGBTQ+ residents — and for not offering full benefits to city employees in domestic partnerships.

“It's really commendable to see that Council President Nye is planning to make these changes, to really just recognize the diversity of our community and how we show our commitment to the ones we love, Rahaman said.”

Barry Greene Jr. is the Equitable Cities Reporting Fellow for Reparations Narratives.