Montana High Court Says University System Must Provide Gay Employees with Domestic Partner Benefits
MISSOULA, MT - In a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Montana Supreme Court ruled today that the state must provide lesbian and gay employees of the University of Montana System with the option of purchasing health insurance and other employee benefits for their domestic partners.
"This is an incredible victory for the lesbian and gay employees of the University of Montana System who need to protect their families just like their straight colleagues do," said Scott Crichton, Executive Director of the ACLU of Montana. "The court has said that same-sex couples who form committed relationships can no longer be denied the same protections and benefits that it affords different-sex couples."
The court, in a four-to-three decision, ruled that the University System's policy of excluding lesbian and gay employees from equal employment benefits violates the state constitution's equal protection guarantees.
In a concurring opinion, Judge James C. Nelson writes, "[T]he equal protection clause states that 'No person' shall be denied the equal protection of the laws. The language is clear and unambiguous. 'No person' means simply that - there is no language in this clause excepting out of this guarantee gay and lesbians. At least our society has not come to the position that homosexuals are not even to be considered as persons."
Carol Snetsinger and Nancy Siegel are two of the plaintiffs represented by the ACLU. They have been in a committed relationship for more than eight years. Snetsinger works in the biology department at the University of Montana, Missoula, and Siegel is a physical therapist. Due to the small size and limited purchasing power for health care of the place where Siegel works, she has no access to group insurance through her employer and has been forced to purchase private insurance that is inferior to and much more expensive than coverage that the married university employees are able to purchase for their spouses.
"We are ecstatic about this decision. It's been a long wait, and now we're thrilled that gay and lesbian employees of the University System will be able to insure their families," said Snetsinger. "I was moved to tears when I heard the decision. It's an incredible way to end this year."
The ACLU brought the lawsuit in February 2002 on behalf of two lesbian couples and PRIDE, Inc., a Montana based lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization whose members include employees and domestic partners of employees of the University of Montana System. The lawsuit charged that it was unconstitutional to deny same-sex couples access to health insurance, disability coverage and other benefits available to married employees and even to committed opposite-sex couples that signed an affidavit of common law marriage.
"This is truly a landmark decision," said Holly Jo Franz, one of the attorneys who argued the case. "The court has made it clear that same-sex couples must be respected."