SACRAMENTO, Calif. — When Diane Whipple was mauled to death by two dogs outside her San Francisco apartment, most of the nation's media angled their reports on the liability of dog owners.

Now the tragedy has taken an unexpected turn.

Whipple's homosexual partner is suing for wrongful death, and homosexual activists are citing the case as they pressure California legislators to bestow marriage benefits upon same-sex couples.

The Sacramento-based Capitol Resource Institute, a subsidiary of Focus on the Family, is concerned. “[Whipple's partner] has our sympathy, but laws should be based on reason, not emotion,” says Karen Holgate, a spokesperson for the institute.

While 18 states currently have homosexual partnership legislation pending, two of the most strongly worded bills are currently working their way through the California assembly.

Holgate says that activists will use the emotional appeal of Whipple's death, and her partner's inability to sue, to further the viability of these bills, solidify pre-existing domestic partnership laws in California and establish “civil unions,” much like those in Vermont, for homosexuals.

The stronger of the two California bills would establish a virtual equivalence between marriage and “civil unions.” It seeks to strike the words “husband,” “wife,” “spouse” and “married persons” from Section 11 of the Family Code, and states that its purpose is “to equalize civil union and civil marriage under all applicable laws of any jurisdiction that may affect or govern the rights of married persons in every other state, the District of Columbia, the United States, and any foreign country, including the Constitution of the United States and the California Constitution, to the end that no party to a civil union shall be treated any differently than a married person

Make no mistake, “gay marriage” is the goal, says Judith Schaeffer of the Sacramento chapter of People for the American Way, a liberal group that enthusiastically supports the pending California legislation.

“There is no substitute for equal marriage rights” for homosexuals, she told the Register. “This bill remedies part of the problem; it is a step in the right direction.”

To herself and her organization, nothing but a completely equal par with marriage would be acceptable, she says.

The weaker of the two California bills nonetheless gives “additional basic rights,” she says, adding that she is quite sure that at least one of the bills will pass into law.

Holgate pointed out that the wishes of homosexual rights activists are opposite to the express wishes of California voters, who last year overwhelmingly agreed to a measure affirming this definition of marriage: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

From across the Atlantic, the Vatican weighed in on the issue of non-marital unions last March.

In a document published by the Pontifical Council for the Family, the Church reiterated that trying to make marriage and other “unions” equivalent “represents a grave and repeated attack on the family based on marriage, a union of love and life between a man and a woman from which life naturally springs.”

The document warns: “To deny this fundamental and elementary anthropological truth would lead to the destruction of the fabric of society.”

Then, in November, the council published a second document — Family, Marriage and de Facto Unions — which addresses the “equality-based” arguments in favor of civil unions by noting that “respect for the dignity of persons is not subject to discussion.

“Understanding circumstances and respect for persons are not equivalent to a justification,” the document adds. In addition, it calls such “de facto unions” a “false solution,” because they are “a detrimental comparison to marriage.”

Cautioning Catholics not to give in to “demagogic pressures by lobbies that do not take the common good of society into consideration,” the council instead recommends strengthening the family. The document includes an invitation to “those who are fighting for the cause of man to unite their efforts in promoting the family and its intimate source of life which is the conjugal union.”

In California, the executive committee of the state's bishops will meet this month to discuss several issues, including these pending bills, says David Pollard, a spokesman for the California Catholic Conference.

“There is no question of the Church's position on this.” he told the Register.“ But there is a dilemma.” And that is how to oppose the bills without increasing media coverage — which would almost certainly play into the hands of the bills' proponents.

“A wild-eyed reaction will perpetuate headlines and news coverage,” says Pollard. This, he believes, will favor those seeking to pass the bills since they will be given a forum in which to repeat the mantra of “equality.”

He hopes that California Gov. Gray Davis will veto these bills if they pass, but he says it is hard to say which way the governor will go — even though Davis is a Catholic.

Because of political pressure to appear “moderate,” he says, Davis has “been a windshield wiper on this [issue]; first he goes one way, then the other.”

Andrew Walther writes from Los Angeles