ACLU Urges Montana High Court to Require State University System to Offer Domestic Partner Benefits to Gay Employees

Affiliate: ACLU of Montana
November 13, 2003 12:00 am

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MISSOULA, MT – The American Civil Liberties Union appeared before the Montana Supreme Court today to ask the court to require the University of Montana System to give lesbian and gay employees the option of purchasing health insurance and other employee benefits for their domestic partners.

“The lesbian and gay employees of the University of Montana System have families to support, just like their straight colleagues, and they deserve the same employment benefits that straight employees receive,” said Tamara Lange, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project who appeared before the court. “The university’s policy shows nothing but contempt for its gay employees. They let married employees and even unmarried straight employees purchase health insurance and other benefits for their partners, but completely shut out gay employees.”

The ACLU brought a lawsuit against the University of Montana System 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. The lawsuit charges that the university’s policy of preventing gay employees from purchasing health insurance and other employment benefits for their domestic partners violates the equal protection guarantees under the Montana constitution.

Married employees at the University of Montana’s seven campuses have the option of providing health insurance, disability coverage and other benefits for their spouses. Even unmarried, committed opposite-sex couples can provide their partners with benefits by signing a statement of common-law marriage, even though signing that statement doesn’t make them married under Montana law. In educational institutions across the country, similar statements are currently used to establish a same-sex partner’s eligibility to participate in domestic partner insurance plans.

“The Montana Constitution promises equality for all Montanans, not just for heterosexuals,” said Holly Franz, an ACLU cooperating attorney who practices with Gough, Shanahan, Johnson, & Waterman. “Yet Montana’s publicly funded university discriminates against gay people by denying them the same opportunities to purchase health insurance and other protections for their families that straight employees get.”

Carol Snetsinger and Nancy Siegel are two of the plaintiffs represented by the ACLU. They have been in a committed relationship for over eight years. Snetsinger has worked as a curriculum and web designer in the biology department at the University of Montana, Missoula, and Siegel as a physical therapist. Due to the clinic’s small size and limited purchasing power for health care, Siegel has no access to group insurance through her employer and must 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.

“This is about fairness. The fact that my partner is another woman shouldn’t prevent me from having access to the same benefits as my straight coworkers,” said Snetsinger. “We need access to affordable health insurance just like everyone else. It’s not right that the University should punish us by making us spend more money for less comprehensive insurance simply because we’re gay.”

In November 2002, the district court judge dismissed the case, Snetsinger, et al v. Montana University System, et al, without a trial. It is now before the Montana Supreme Court on appeal from that decision. The court is expected to rule on the issue some time next year.

A copy of the ACLU’s brief is available at /node/35018

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