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Updated Dec 18, 2013 - 5:16 pm

Cottonwood latest in Arizona to approve civil unions

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- The city of Cottonwood has joined a handful of Arizona communities in approving civil unions.

The City Council voted 6-1 Tuesday in favor of an ordinance that would allow couples to enter into a legal, domestic partnership without regard to gender. Vice Mayor Karen Pfeifer cast the dissenting vote.

Cottonwood already prohibited discrimination among city employees based on sexual orientation. But the benefits afforded to city employees in domestic partnerships didn't extend to all residents.

``It's something communities are looking at to treat their citizens equally, and leadership (is) standing up and saying equality is important in our communities,'' Cottonwood Mayor Diane Joens said Wednesday. ``I think it's as simple as that.''

The ordinance that goes into effect in 30 days closely models one approved by Sedona. The provisions include a registration process, and couples can file a list of documents such as custody agreements and powers of attorney with the city if they wish. Those in civil unions with a city employee also would be on par with spouses when it comes to accessing employment benefits, such as health insurance.

Bisbee was the first in Arizona to approve civil unions, with Tucson, Jerome and Clarkdale following.

Some residents of the Verde Valley cited religious beliefs in opposing Cottonwood's ordinance, and business owners and a church pastor questioned whether they would be subject to a lawsuit for denying services to same-sex couples in a civil union. The city responded by saying that nothing in the ordinance would make a lawsuit more likely.

Members of the gay community focused on civil and human rights in their effort to get the ordinance approved. Shortly after the vote, the Sedona/Verde Valley Pride group posted this on its Facebook page: ``BAM! And just like that! EQUALITY WINS.''

``We're a small town, and we're supposed to be behind the times,'' said board member Dina Dantowiz. ``But here we are pushing something forward before Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tempe.''

Republican state Rep. Bob Thorpe, of Flagstaff, questioned whether the ordinance was needed as a problem-solving mechanism and whether the city government should even consider it. He said he was contacted by residents of Cottonwood who suggested it should have been referred to voters. He agreed.

``I personally as a state legislator would feel a little uncomfortable putting forward a bill that changed social norms,'' he said. ``And I just don't think that's really appropriate at the city level, the county level, the state level.''

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