Ruling: State trying to put gay, lesbian workers at ‘back of the bus’

PAUL DAVENPORT  |  Associated Press Writer

PHOENIX — A federal judge has blocked Arizona from implementing a cutoff of domestic partner benefits for gay and lesbian state employees.

U.S. District Judge John Sedwick on Friday, July 23 issued a preliminary injunction that requires the state to still make family health insurance available to gay and lesbian state employees who have established relationships that meet residency and other standards under state administration rules.

The judge also dismissed part of a lawsuit challenging the prohibition against providing domestic partner benefits to gays and lesbians, but he left another part intact, allowing the lawsuit to continue.

State officials approved domestic partner benefits in late 2008 under rule changes proposed by then-Gov. Janet Napolitano’s administration over objections from social conservatives.

After Napolitano, a Democrat, left office in January 2009, the Republican-led Legislature included the prohibition — which applied to all unmarried couples — in a budget law that Gov. Jan Brewer signed last September. The prohibition’s implementation was delayed because the state was already in a new contract year.

The preliminary injunction issued Friday by Sedwick only applies to unmarried gay and lesbian state workers, which it called “a small fraction” of the 800 employees who receive domestic-partner benefits.

The prohibition still takes effect Jan. 1 for heterosexual domestic partners.

Sedwick’s 33-page order said heterosexuals may become eligible for family coverage under the state plan by marrying.

But because employees in same-sex relationships cannot marry in Arizona, the law “has the effect of completely barring lesbians and gays from receiving family benefits,” Sedwick wrote.

Consequently, the prohibition against domestic-partner benefits “burdens state employees with same-sex domestic partners more than state employees with opposite-sex domestic partners,” denying them “a valuable form of compensation,” Sedwick added.

That leaves the plaintiffs with a good chance of being able to prove at trial that the prohibition violates their rights for equal protection under the law, and they would face irreparable harm in the meantime if the prohibition were allowed to take effect, he said.

Sedwick rejected the state’s arguments that the prohibition was justified by cost savings, administrative efficiency and the state’s interest in favoring marriage and families with children.

He also said the state’s argument that gay and lesbian workers could get coverage elsewhere for their partners amounted to “back of the bus” treatment.

Friday was a state furlough day for most state agencies and a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office did not immediately respond to an e-mail asking whether the state will appeal Sedwick’s order. Brewer spokesman Paul Senseman said the governor’s office would review the court decision and “decide next steps next week.”

The ruling “removes the sword that’s been hanging over” gay and lesbian state workers, said Tara Borelli, a Lamba Legal attorney who worked on the case.