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Court Defends Gay Workers from Arizona Gov’s Attempt to Strip Benefits

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Sep 7, 2011

A bill signed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer tried to take away the family benefits that predecessor Janet Napolitano provided, via executive order, for the families of the state's gay and lesbian employees.

But a decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an injunction against the bill, ruling that to target one group for the loss of benefits enjoyed by everyone else is a violation of equal protections set out in the U.S. Constitution.

Brewer signed a bill to strip benefits from same-sex families two years ago, in September of 2009. Napolitano had provided those benefits via executive order the year before. The bill also sought to deprive straight domestic partners of benefits, as well as grown offspring, reported local newspaper the Arizona Republic in a Sept. 6 article.

"When a state chooses to provide such benefits, it may not do so in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner that adversely affects particular groups that may be unpopular," the unanimous verdict, issued by a panel of three judges, said.

The governor's office defended the law as an attempt to reign in the state's budget, and noted that the bill had treated both straight and gay unmarried couples equally -- a technically true statement, but one that means little in practical terms in a state where gay and lesbian families have been denied the legal recognition and rights of marriage through an amendment to the Arizona constitution, a point of which the verdict took note.

"While the district court noted that [the bill] was not discriminatory on its face, because it affected both same-sex and different-sex couples, the court held that [the bill] had a discriminatory effect," the opinion, written by Circuit Judge Mary Schroeder, read, reported MetroWeekly on Sept. 6.

"This is because, under Arizona law, different-sex couples could retain their health coverage by marrying, but same-sex couples could not.... Therefore, the district court granted plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction on equal protection grounds."

However, a spokesperson for the governor portrayed the verdict as being the source of family inequality in the state, the Arizona Republic article said.

"The federal court has created this inequality by preventing the termination of same-sex benefits but allowing the elimination of benefits for straight couples," Matthew Benson told the media. "When you read the ruling, the court's real motivation seems to be for the legalization of gay marriage."

Benson offered even more hostile words regarding the court.

"This ruling is pretty much standard fare for the 9th Circuit," he declared. "The decision flies in the face of both logic and the law."

The state's gay and lesbian employees saw things by a different stripe of logic, however -- the logic of working families trying to make ends meet.

"I feel like, when I go to work, I do my job," state worker Deanna Pfleger told the Arizona Republic. "And my heterosexual co-workers, they are doing the same basic job, but they can enroll their spouse and benefit from that, both financially and emotionally. I don't have that.

"It's really about equal pay for equal work," Pfleger added.

The verdict only addressed one part of the overall issue, the article said, with the ruling applicable only to the injunction stopping the 2009 law from going into effect. A U.S. District judge issued that injunction last year. The 9th Circuit's verdict upheld that injunction, but did not actually rule on the issue of the state having cut benefits for some employees and not others.

"Today's decision by the Ninth Circuit means Arizona's lesbian and gay state employees will not suddenly find themselves without vital family health coverage, for as long as the decision stands," Lambda Legal attorney Tara Borelli said. Borelli had argued against the bill before the 9th Circuit, MetroWeekly noted.

"Our clients are simply seeking equal pay for equal work," added Borelli. "We're confident that principle will continue to prevail as the case advances."

A Sept. 6 statement from the Human Rights Campaign praised the 9th Circuit's verdict.

"Governor Brewer's decision to take health care and insurance benefits away from state employees in same-sex relationships has been recognized for what it is: unconstitutional," Joe Solmonese, the head of the HRC, said. "During a time of economic difficulty for many Arizonans, it makes no sense for the state to make our families less secure and deny health care to our partners."

"For now, the injunction will preserve domestic partner benefits for the approximately 800 state and university employees who currently receive them.," the HRC release said. "The case, brought by Lambda Legal on behalf of same-sex couples, will proceed to the trial court."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


  • , 2011-09-07 20:20:55

    Arizona take off your colored shades. You refused to acknowledge MLK and then you deny rights to a certain group of your statesmen. Shameful.

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