The liberal enclave of Bisbee in southeast Arizona bucked the state's conservative leanings by registering same-sex couples for civil unions on Friday, with two lesbians becoming the first to take the step.
In April the former copper mining town defied the state's Republican attorney general by approving a civil unions measure for same-sex couples. A modified version went into effect on Friday.
Arizona law does not recognize same-sex unions. But now couples can go to Bisbee City Hall to sign documents assigning powers of attorney to each other.
Kathy Sowden and Deborah Grier, who own an antique store in town and have been together for 21 years, were the first to get a civil union certificate.
The couple signed documents, strolled down a hallway to pay the $76 fee, and it was done.
"I guess it feels like it sort of solidifies the relationship with the rest of the world. That's why we did it - because it does give you another level of security legally," Sowden, 57, said.
"And there's a little extra happiness in here," Grier, 63, added, patting her heart with her palm and smiling at her partner.
The documents give them the ability to visit each other in hospitals, talk to doctors for the other partner, have access to medical records and make decisions for each other, such as in the case of organ donation.
Though the registration of the contractual agreements is with Bisbee, it offers protection beyond the town, said City Attorney John MacKinnon. "These delegations of authority would be applicable anywhere," he said.
The ordinance also allows employees of the town to access a partner's medical benefits through a civil union, regardless of whether they are in same-sex or heterosexual partnerships.
The Bisbee City Council's vote to approve the civil unions measure prompted a warning from Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, a Republican.
He said Bisbee lacked the authority under state law to pass the ordinance and threatened to go to court to block it.
Arizona does not have a law entitling same-sex couples to civil unions, and voters in 2008 approved a change to the state constitution restricting marriage to between a man and a woman.
After a meeting with Horne, Bisbee officials softened the language in their ordinance, dropping references that said the city's civil unions would confer rights equivalent to marriage.
Horne said in May he withdrew his objection after the city agreed not to change any state laws within its jurisdictions.
Laws permitting gay and lesbian civil unions or domestic partnerships have been approved in more than half a dozen U.S. states. Eleven states recognize same-sex marriage, and laws to accomplish that in two more states go into effect on Aug. 1.
In a landmark ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court last month forced the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages in states where it is legal and in a separate ruling it cleared the way for same-sex marriages in California. (Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Xavier Briand)
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