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City Hall in University City

City Hall in University City.

UPDATED 12:15 p.m. with comment from gay rights group.

UNIVERSITY CITY • This community known for its diversity and progressive ways became on Monday the first municipality in St. Louis County to adopt a domestic partnership ordinance giving same-sex partners and other couples who live together the same rights as spouses in many situations.

The City Council approved the measure 6-1. The vote brought a standing ovation from many in the crowd that packed the council chambers, and some in the audience had tears. Many credited Councilman Terry Crow, who has been active in gay causes and proposed the ordinance.

"This is a great night," Crow said after the ordinance passed.

Crow, Councilman Steven Kraft and Mayor Shelley Welsch said they hoped University City's measure would encourage other governments, including St. Louis County, to adopt similar ordinances.

Before the vote, the City Council got an earful as more than a dozen people spoke passionately on both sides of the issue. Some against the bill brought copies of the Bible and read passages aloud.

On the other side, Margaret Johnson, 70, a retired mathematics professor from University City, attended with her partner of 25 years. Johnson said she appreciated city officials' willingness to become the first in St. Louis County to take a stand.

"It makes me proud to be a citizen of University City," she said.

Matthew Nosko, 25, of University City, who is in a same-sex relationship, said that many rights that other people take for granted are denied to same-sex couples. These include, he said, "fundamental rights to hospital visitation and notification of emergencies."

"This bill takes an important step to change that and upholds University City's historic stance in protecting citizens' rights regardless of race, creed, gender and now sexual orientation," Nosko said.

Those on the other side included former state Rep. Cynthia Davis, of O'Fallon, who is St. Charles County's Republican Party chairwoman. She vehemently urged the council to vote down the measure.

"I want to encourage you to keep your community family friendly" and make sure University City "has the right kind of culture you'll be proud of," Davis told the council.

Joan Schneider of Ballwin also urged the council not to pass the ordinance. "I don't think University City wants to be the only city to legislate sin in the United States," she said.

The ordinance establishes a Domestic Partnership Registry. Those on the registry will have visitation rights at health facilities or correctional institutions that are limited to immediate family.

It also grants authority for domestic partners to make decisions on health care and for them to be notified in any emergency.

Backers acknowledge the ordinance is in many ways symbolic. It is not binding by law outside University City.

Nevertheless, they say, it's an important way to champion diversity and equal rights and to attract residents and businesses. In addition, they say it could encourage public and private employers to adopt health benefit policies respecting domestic partnerships.

The University City measure defines a domestic partnership as "two adults who consider themselves to be members of each other's immediate family, share a common residence and affirm that they share responsibility for each other's common welfare."

To establish a recognized domestic partnership, both individuals - who must be at least 18 - would file a Declaration of Registered Domestic Partnership with the city.

St. Louis has had a domestic partnership law since 1997. Kansas City and Jackson County and Columbia, Mo., also do.

Former County Councilwoman Barbara Fraser and others tried unsuccessfully in 2007 to add "sexual orientation" to an anti-discrimination law dealing with housing, employment and public accommodations in unincorporated St. Louis County.

Missouri does not have a domestic partnership or civil union law. In 2004, voters statewide approved an amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

The bill does not specifically address benefits issues but many believe that broader acceptance will encourage governments and businesses to grant benefits to same sex and unmarried heterosexual couples.

University City employees already may receive medical benefits for partners regardless of the sex of the partner.

The executive director for PROMO, a statewide advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality, praised the new law and Crow after the vote.

"We are pleased and excited with the City Council's vote," A.J. Bockelman said in a statement. "University City has always been a community that encourages and welcomes all families regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity and what happened ... is a testament to that."

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect spelling of University City resident Matthew Nosko's name. This version has been corrected.

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