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In a National First, Oregon Court Says
Government Must Recognize Same-Sex Partners

Thursday, December 10, 1998

PORTLAND, OR--In one of the most sweeping gay rights decisions ever, an Oregon appeals court has said that government is constitutionally required to recognize same-sex domestic partnerships, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon said today.

Another part of the ruling, issued late on Wednesday by a three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals, appears to ban any form of employment discrimination against lesbians and gay men, including discrimination by private employers. This would make Oregon the 11th state to prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the first to require that government provide benefits to the partners of lesbian and gay employees.

"In one fell swoop, the Court held that the equal protection section of the state Constitution requires equal treatment for lesbian and gay couples -- something no other court has said -- and held that the state's law against employment discrimination based on sex protects lesbians and gay men -- also something no other court has said," said Matt Coles, Director of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "Not a bad day's work."

The ACLU of Oregon, which has been working throughout the case as a "friend of the court" on behalf of three lesbian couples who sought domestic partnership benefits from employers at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU), said that the ruling had potentially far reaching implications.

"The decision will require all public agencies in the state to provide benefits to domestic partners," said Dave Fidanque, Executive Director of the ACLU of Oregon. "In addition, it suggests that any time the state extends a special privilege to a married couple, it should provide the same privilege to gay couples who are not permitted to marry."

In ruling that OHSU has to provide benefits to lesbian and gay couples, the court concluded that any discrimination against lesbians and gay men is "suspect" and should be looked at closely by courts. Both that ruling and the employment ruling could have implications outside Oregon.

"Every state Constitution has an equal protection clause, and every state has a law against sex discrimination," said Coles. "While they are not all identical, we are going to do our best to make this the start of a trend," he said.

The case arose in 1992, when three lesbian couples employed at OHSU challenged the state's health insurance policy which denied benefits for domestic partners. A trial court found that the insurance provisions were discriminatory and violated the state constitution. This week's ruling upholds that decision.

Fidanque said that for Oregon, today's decision "completely changes the legal landscape of employment law and represents a tremendous victory for all Oregonians who have worked hard to provide legal protection on the basis of sexual orientation for all Oregon workers."

Two other states, New York and Vermont, voluntarily provide domestic partnership benefits to lesbian and gay couples, as do scores of cities, counties, and increasing numbers of major corporations. Ten other states and the District of Columbia have laws protecting lesbians and gay men against workplace discrimination: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia.

The case is Tanner v. OHSU.

The ACLU co-operating attorney on the case is Lynn R. Nakamoto.

Copyright 1998, The American Civil Liberties Union