Washington Supreme Court Supports Domestic Partnership

August 23, 2001 12:00 am

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OLYMPIA, WA–The Washington Supreme Court today upheld a City of Vancouver program that provides health insurance to unmarried partners of people the City employs. The American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund had filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging that the domestic partnership program be upheld.

In an 8-to-1 ruling, the Court found that nothing in the state constitution or state law prevents a city from offering health insurance benefits to unmarried partners.

“Providing benefits for domestic partners of employees is a matter of basic fairness,”” said Karolyn Hicks, an attorney handling the case for the ACLU. “”When unmarried employees do not receive the benefits provided to their married colleagues, they are not getting equal pay for equal work.””

As part of its benefits package, the City of Vancouver in southwest Washington provides health insurance coverage to domestic partners of employees. In March, 1999 a taxpayer filed a challenge to the program in Clark County Superior Court.

Superior Court Judge John Nichols ruled in favor of the program, finding that state statute does not limit the types of dependents who can receive health care benefits from cities governed by home rule and rejecting a claim that extending health care benefits to domestic partners violates state policies or laws regarding marriage.

The ACLU/Lambda legal brief pointed out that the state acknowledges in various ways that its residents, whether married or not, should receive equal treatment under law. Discrimination on the basis of marital status is forbidden in employment, education, public accommodations, and credit and real property transactions. Further, one’s sexual orientation cannot be a bar to custody, visitation, or other parental rights, including adoption by unmarried same-sex couples. The brief explained that an institution’s use of marital status as the sole basis for family benefits has a disproportionate impact upon same-sex couples because they are not presently able to marry.

“Medical expenses for a loved one who suffers a serious injury or illness can be financially devastating. Health insurance coverage for employees in committed relationships is an important part of employment benefits,” said the ACLU’s Hicks.

In addition to Vancouver, numerous other governmental entities in Washington, including the City of Seattle and the state itself, provide domestic partner health insurance benefits. So do many major companies operating in Washington, including Microsoft, Boeing, Safeco, Nordstrom, Costco, and Starbucks.

Hicks and staff attorney Aaron Caplan handled the case for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the Lesbian and Gay Rights Project of the ACLU; staff attorney Jenny Pizer handled the case for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

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