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Domestic partners ready to register in Ohio city

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio -- Doug Braun and his partner of 14 years couldn't wait for this morning, the first day they can go to City Hall to place their names in a registry recognizing them as domestic partners.

They will walk away with a notarized piece of paper that legally means nothing, but to Braun, 42, and his partner, Brian DeWitt, 48, it will be the most important day of their lives.

"It's not a marriage," Braun said. "For us, it's a show of our commitment to each other. It's something concrete that we can hold on to and show all of the thousands of hours we put in to work on this."

The domestic registry for gay and straight unmarried partners was approved in November by voters in the upscale Cleveland suburb of 50,000 residents. It passed with 55 percent of the vote.

Domestic registries have been created by councils and state legislatures elsewhere -- the Vermont Legislature approved the nation's first law recognizing the relationships of same-sex couples, and California created a statewide registry for same-sex couples and gave them some of the legal standing of married spouses -- but this was the first through a ballot issue, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

The opening of the Cleveland Heights registry is also occurring less than a week after the Ohio Legislature passed one of the country's most-far reaching bans on gay marriage.

The registry is not marriage and it's not binding in courts, governments, or companies. But supporters hope it will make it easier for couples eventually to share employment benefits, inherit property, or get hospital visiting rights.

Opponents, including the Cleveland Heights Family First Initiative, say it's wrong for a city to legitimize a lifestyle many disagree with.

A statement from the group said the registry attempts to "redefine marriage" and "will have very serious, negative effects on our society as a whole."

Keli Zehnder, 37, and her partner, Deborah Smith, 44, a couple for seven years, already have powers of attorney and wills spelling out their wishes regarding each other and their two young daughters.

But Zehnder said it was important that they register on the first day as a payoff for the intense campaigning that led to the successful vote.

"This piece of paper feels more meaningful than the other stuff, even though the other stuff is more valid in some ways. This is something that I worked on for 18 months," she said.

Cleveland Heights, about 10 miles southeast of Cleveland, is home largely to middle- and upper-class professionals and has funky clothing shops, artsy cafes, family-owned restaurants, and historical homes.

According to the Census, only 970 people, or 1.9 percent of residents, reported living with an unmarried partner.

Mayor Edward Kelley said the registry issue hasn't divided the city, which weathered a similar controversy two years ago when it adopted Ohio's first ordinance giving health benefits to same-sex partners of city employees.

"In Cleveland Heights, not only do we have racial diversity, we have religious diversity. We have this diversity. I'm very proud of that," Kelley said.

The registration costs $50 for residents and $65 for nonresidents. Kelley said he's gotten calls from both gay and straight couples from other states who are interested in registering. Eventually, the city will offer the registration online and by mail, he said.

Susanna Niermann O'Neil, community services director, said the process would take about 10 minutes for each couple, many of whom planned to take photos or have family attend. "We just want it to be nice," O'Neil said.

The city even arranged rooms in City Hall where couples can wait.

"We're not going to make people stand in line like they're in a post office waiting to buy stamps," the mayor said. "We want to make sure that they be treated in a fair and just manner."

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