FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
MISSOULA, MT -- The Montana University System is engaged in a "desperate and cynical" attempt to keep a state court from hearing a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of lesbian and gay university employees who can't get health insurance and other benefits for their families, the American Civil Liberties Union said today.
In legal papers filed this morning, the ACLU urged a state court to deny the university's effort to have the case dismissed. The ACLU's brief disputes the university's arguments that the court can't extend equal benefits without legalizing gay marriage and that it should be up to the legislature to decide whether lesbian and gay people are entitled to equal treatment.
"The University of Montana System's Regents clearly need to sit in on some freshman government classes," said Scott Crichton, Executive Director of the ACLU of Montana. "The role of courts is to interpret our Constitution and make sure all of us are treated equally under the law. Our clients deserve their day in court, which is what we're fighting for today."
Crichton said the university is "waving gay marriage in front of the court like a red cape in front of a bull" in order to deflect attention from the fact that the university's denial of equal health benefits effectively compensates gay employees less for doing the same work as straight employees - and directly conflicts with explicit rights in the Montana Constitution.
"We're saying the state can't hinge health insurance and other benefits on marriage if it also outlaws same-sex marriage -- that completely blocks gay people out of the system, which is unconstitutional," Crichton said. "If we prevail once this case is heard, lesbian and gay employees will be able to buy health insurance for their families the same way straight employees do, but the state's marriage laws will be unchanged."
The ACLU of Montana and the national ACLU's Lesbian & Gay Rights Project initially filed the lawsuit in February, based on the Montana Constitution's guarantees of equal protection under the laws and the right to pursue life's basic necessities. The ACLU represents two lesbian employees and their partners, along with PRIDE, a statewide lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered group. In April, the university asked to court to dismiss the case outright, in what Crichton said was "a desperate and cynical attempt to stop both the court and the public from seriously looking at this taxpayer-funded discrimination."
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 is a matter of basic fairness -- of whether gay employees should be compensated less than straight employees for doing the same work," Crichton said. He 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 like Montana's or constitutional amendments banning recognition of same-sex marriage. The ACLU said this negates arguments from "hold-out" universities that they cannot provide equal benefits because state law bans gay marriage. Overall, 18 of the 74 statewide university systems in the country provide domestic partner benefits, the ACLU said, and 150 of the nation's 530 individual state-funded universities provide benefits to employees' same-sex partners.
The case is Snetsinger v. State of Montana. A legal brief in the case is online at /node/35012.