By Michael Kunzelman Associated Press

Christian group had filed lawsuit challenging city’s authority to offer benefits to partners of gay employees

NEW ORLEANS — The city of New Orleans had the right to offer health benefits to unmarried domestic partners of city employees, a state appeals panel has ruled.

Three judges from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a Christian civil rights group’s argument that the city violated the state constitution and public policies that favor marriage over unmarried cohabitation. The city’s policy covers same-sex and opposite-sex couples that are living together.

The Alliance Defense Fund also said the city ordinance that extended health benefits to same-sex couples violates terms of the state’s constitutional ban on gay marriage, but the 4th Circuit didn’t rule on that argument Jan. 15.

"We are not persuaded by the plaintiffs’ argument that the registry ordinance would confuse the marital status, rights and benefits accruing to married persons ‘as they drive from Lafayette’ to New Orleans," the judges wrote, noting that New Orleans’ policy "creates no obligations between the parties who choose to register."

Mike Johnson, a Shreveport-based lawyer for the ADF, said the group may ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to review last week’s ruling.

"To us, it was a common sense, obvious violation of the state constitution," Johnson said of the city’s ordinance. "It still seems that obvious to us."

The Defense Fund sued the city on behalf of a group of New Orleans taxpayers. Lambda Legal, which advocates for the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, intervened in the case and supported the city’s position.

"The practical effect," Lambda Legal attorney Kenneth Upton Jr. said of last week’s ruling, "is that the employees who have a same-sex partner can continue to insure them."

Before 1997, only married spouses were eligible for coverage under the city’s health-care program. At least 132 people registered as domestic partners between 1997 and 2003, but only about 10 city employees had registered domestic partners who were receiving health benefits as of August 2003, according to the 4th Circuit’s ruling. узнать пр сайта