Court OKs City's Partner-Benefits Requirement

June 15, 2001 12:00 am

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SAN FRANCISCO — A federal court has upheld a city’s right to do business only with companies that treat their gay and lesbian employees fairly, the Gay.com/PlanetOut.com Network reported.

According to Gay.com/PlanetOut.com, the Ninth United States Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday rejected an Ohio company’s claim that San Francisco unconstitutionally interfered with interstate commerce by requiring its contractors to provide their employees domestic partnership benefits equal to those given married couples.

S.D. Myers Inc., represented in court by conservative evangelist Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, had been the low bidder on a contract to maintain electrical transformers for San Francisco.

However, because Myers refused to comply with the provisions of the city’s 1997 Equal Benefits Ordinance, the company lost on the $143,000 contract.

“This is a big win,” said Matt Coles, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, who wrote a friend-of-the-court brief in the case supporting the city.

Coles said the court shot down one of the most common arguments — unconstitutional restriction of interstate commerce — employers have against ordinances like San Francisco’s.

“I think there are cities all over the country that have been watching this case,” he said.

San Francisco was the first municipality to enact this type of law.

“This decision gives a seal of approval to all municipalities like San Francisco that want their tax dollars spent on companies that treat fairly all their employees who have families,” said Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund attorney Jennifer Pizer. Lambda also filed a brief supporting San Francisco’s case.

“What is most stunning about this decision is that a deeply conservative judge wrote a very matter-of-fact opinion supporting the law,” Coles said.

With no fanfare, he said, Judge J. Clifford Wallace confirmed that the matter was one of civil rights.

“There was no rhetoric — and not an ounce of hostility,” Coles said.

“The San Francisco law created a cascade effect through major market sectors, starting with commercial airlines,” said Kim Mills, author of the 1999 Human Rights Campaign report, “The State of the Workplace for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Workers.”

After a protracted battle with San Francisco over the partner benefits requirement, United Airlines implemented same-sex benefits in late summer 1999. American Airlines followed United’s lead one week later and now the majority of the largest U.S.-based carriers recognize domestic partners.

“Other sectors that quickly followed were banking and oil and gas,” Mills added. According to Mills, benefits at 76 percent of all firms known to be offering them by 1999 could be linked to enactment of San Francisco’s law.

A pending decision from the same panel of judges will address the Air Transport Association’s appeal of a ruling on the same ordinance. While most of the plaintiff airlines in the case have already adopted domestic partnership benefits for same-sex couples, according to Coles, they are arguing that they shouldn’t be required to offer them to unmarried heterosexual couples.

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