ACLU Sues Montana Universities for Gay Partner Benefits

February 5, 2002

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

MISSOULA, MT -- The Montana University System is violating the state constitution by not offering health and other benefits to same-sex partners of lesbian and gay employees, according to a lawsuit filed this week by the American Civil Liberties Union. A comprehensive national survey released today by the ACLU shows that nearly one-third of state-funded universities nationwide provide benefits for employees' domestic partners.

Employees at the Montana University System's seven campuses can get health insurance, disability coverage and other benefits for their spouses. Even unmarried opposite-sex couples can provide their partners with benefits - by simply signing an affidavit of common law marriage. This week's lawsuit, filed in Helena against the state, the university system and the system's leadership, seeks a ruling that would force the university to allow lesbian and gay employees to provide the same benefits to their partners.

"This is a matter of basic fairness -- of whether gay employees should be compensated less than straight employees for doing the same work," said Scott Crichton, Executive Director of the ACLU of Montana. Crichton noted that along with actual salary, health insurance and other benefits make up a substantial portion of how employees are compensated.

Nationwide, public universities in 20 states provide benefits to employees' domestic partners, according to the ACLU. Of those 20 states, 12 have laws or constitutional amendments banning recognition of same-sex marriage - which the ACLU said negates arguments from "hold-out" universities that they cannot provide equal benefits because state law bans gay marriage.

The survey released today shows that 18 of the 74 statewide university systems in the country provide domestic partner benefits, and 150 of the nation's 530 individual state-funded universities provide benefits to employees' same-sex partners.

"We aren't just talking about UC Berkeley any more -- these state universities are in Idaho, Alaska, Iowa and elsewhere," Crichton said. "More and more, they're recognizing that being a responsible employer means treating workers equally and judging them based on how well they do the job."

The lawsuit in Montana is based on protections in the state constitution that the ACLU said are in most other state constitutions, including fundamental rights to privacy and equal protection of the laws. The ACLU charges that the taxpayer-funded university system is violating these basic rights by denying lesbian and gay employees equal access to health insurance and other benefits.

Carol Snetsinger, a staff member in the biology department at the University of Montana in Missoula, is a plaintiff in the case with her partner of seven years, Nancy Siegel. At one point, Siegel had to purchase private health insurance because she couldn't be added to Snetsinger's. She is now on COBRA coverage, which expires in November.

"When I filled out my health insurance forms, I wrote in Nancy's information the same way I'm sure my straight coworkers do for their spouses," Snetsinger said. "I actually didn't think much of it. But when they explained that I couldn't do that, I was floored." 

"It's mind boggling to me that any one of my co-workers can start dating someone and need only sign paperwork that immediately gives this new couple access to health insurance. Meanwhile, no matter how long Nancy and I are together and no matter how committed our relationship, I am prohibited from having the same job benefits," Snetsinger said. "It's fundamentally unfair."

In addition to the two named couples, PRIDE, a statewide group of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people, is a plaintiff in the case. The case is Snetsinger v. State of Montana. 

The comprehensive listing of state universities and whether they provide domestic partner benefits is online at: http://archive.aclu.org/issues/gay/dpbenefits.html.

For a list of only state universities with equal benefits, go to: http://archive.aclu.org/issues/gay/yesdpbenefits.html.

And for a list of state universities that do not offer equal benefits to partners of lesbian and gay employees, go to: http://archive.aclu.org/issues/gay/nodpbenefits.html.

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