ACLU Urges Montana Supreme Court to Require Equal Treatment for Gay Employees of the Montana University System

Affiliate: ACLU of Montana
June 2, 2003 12:00 am

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MISSOULA, MT -In a brief filed today, the American Civil Liberties Union has asked the Montana Supreme Court to require the Montana University System to provide lesbian and gay employees an equal opportunity to purchase health insurance and other employee benefits for their partners.

“We are asking the Montana Supreme Court to recognize that lesbian and gay employees at the Montana University System deserve the same compensation as all other employees,” said Beth Brenneman, Legal Director of the ACLU of Montana. “When generally 40 percent of employment compensation comes from benefits, denying benefits to one group of people means denying them equal pay for equal work.”

The ACLU’s brief argues that the University System’s policy of excluding lesbian and gay employees from equal benefits violates the equal protection guarantees and rights to privacy and dignity under the state constitution.

Married employees at the Montana University System’s seven campuses have the option of providing health insurance, disability coverage and other benefits for their spouses. Even unmarried, committed opposite-sex couples can provide their partners with benefits by signing a statement of common-law marriage, Brenneman noted. In educational institutions across the country, similar statements are currently used to establish a same-sex partner’s eligibility to participate in domestic partner insurance plans.

“By making benefits contingent on marriage, the university makes it impossible for lesbian and gay employees to take advantage of benefits that are available to other employees,” said Tamara Lange, a staff attorney with the Lesbian and Gay Rights Project of the ACLU. “Montana’s Constitution promises equal protection for everyone. The fact that same-sex couples can’t marry doesn’t mean the state can discriminate against them in employment.”

Four friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the ACLU’s arguments were also filed today by groups including churches and religious organizations, the Montana Education Association and Montana Federation of Teachers (MEA-MFT), the Montana Women’s Lobby, the Women’s Law Section of the State Bar of Montana, and others.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of two lesbian couples and PRIDE, Inc., a Montana based lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization whose members include employees and domestic partners of employees of the Montana University System.

Plaintiffs Carol Snetsinger and Nancy Siegel have been in a committed relationship for over seven years. Snetsinger works as a curriculum and web designer in the biology department at the University of Montana, Missoula, and Siegel works part-time as a physical therapist. Due to the clinic’s small size and therefore purchasing power for health care, Siegel has no access to group insurance through her employer and must purchase private insurance that is inferior to and much more expensive than coverage that the married university employees are able to purchase for their spouses.

“It’s mind-boggling to me that I’m denied the same employee benefits that my heterosexual colleagues are offered, simply because of the gender of my partner. The fact that I’m with another woman has absolutely no relevance to how I perform my job and what access I should have to employee compensation,” said Snetsinger. “I want to emphasize that we are not asking the university to pay for my health insurance. We are asking for the opportunity to purchase health care coverage through the university system in the same way that the partners of heterosexual employees are able,” added Siegel.

The ACLU originally filed the lawsuit in February 2002. In November 2002, the district court judge dismissed the case without a trial. The case is now before the Montana Supreme Court on appeal from that decision.

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