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December 10, 1998, Thursday, Late Edition - Final
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company
By TAMAR LEWIN
In the first ruling of its kind, an appeals court in Oregon ruled yesterday that the State Constitution gave homosexual government employees the right to health and life insurance benefits for their domestic partners.
"This is, to my knowledge, the first time a court has said it's unconstitutional not to give benefits to the domestic partners of gay and lesbian employees," said Matt Coles, director of the Lesbian and Gay Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. "And there is no state in the country that provides domestic partner benefits to all government employees."
But Oregon does already provide benefits to the domestic partners of its employees: while the case was on appeal, the state voluntarily began offering such benefits to its direct employees. The employer of the three lesbian plaintiffs in the case, Oregon Health Sciences University, has also voluntarily begun offering such benefits, although it is no longer part of the state, but a separate public corporation.
While the ruling today involved only that university, Mr. Coles said, the decision would apply to every employee of a governmental entity in Oregon, expanding the benefits to thousands of teachers, police officers and others who work for local government.
Robert B. Rocklin, the assistant attorney general who argued the case, said he was not so sure.
"I don't know yet if we'll appeal, and it's hard to say exactly what the impact of the ruling would be," Mr. Rocklin said. "The court dismissed the state defendants because O.H.S.U. is no longer a state entity. It's not completely clear to me whether it would apply to all government employees in the state."
The ruling, by a three-judge panel of the State Court of Appeals, upheld a 1996 trial ruling in the case, finding that the denial of benefits to the three plaintiffs, all nursing professionals in long-term relationships who had applied for medical and dental insurance for their partners in 1991, violated a section of the State Constitution similar to the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution.
In a provision that is echoed in other states, the Oregon Constitution provides that "no law shall be passed granting to any citizen or class of citizens privileges or immunities, which, upon the same terms, shall not equally belong to all citizens."
The three lesbian couples said they were members of a class of citizens, homosexual couples, that was being denied the privilege of insurance benefits.
The university argued that it was not discriminating against the class of homosexuals, since it denied insurance benefits to the unmarried partners of all employees, heterosexual and homosexual alike.
"That reasoning misses the point, however," the court said. "Homosexual couples may not marry. Accordingly, the benefits are not made available on equal terms. They are made available on terms that, for gay and lesbian couples, are a legal impossibility."
In recent years, many private companies and local governments have voluntarily decided to offer benefits to domestic partners. And New York and Vermont, like Oregon, provide benefits to domestic partners of their own workers, but not to those who work for local or county governments.
While the Oregon case is apparently the first in which courts have ordered such benefits, as a constitutional matter, several courts, in New Jersey and elsewhere, have rejected the kind of argument that prevailed in Oregon.
"This is still a new area of law, and there's a similar case pending in Pittsburgh," Mr. Coles said. "But when I look at this decision, I think what a difference a decade makes."