HEALTH BENEFITS FOR gay partners of government employees may be at risk. A Christian legal-action group has funded a lawsuit against the city of Vancouver, Wash., over its policy of extending health benefits to the "domestic partners" of city employees. The case is now before the state Supreme Court, where oral arguments were made last week. "If the state Supreme Court strikes down the Vancouver plan, I think that all or most of these plans"—including the one in Seattle—"would be invalid," says Jordan Lorence, an attorney with the Northstar Legal Center in Virginia who is handling the case against the city on behalf of a "concerned Vancouver taxpayer."
Lorence contends that the Vancouver policy violates Washington state law regarding dependents. "There's no reliance that the partner has to have on the employee," he says. "It's a very loose and permissive standard." (Indeed, Vancouver has gone beyond Seattle by extending benefits to unmarried heterosexual, as well as homosexual, couples.)
Vancouver City Attorney Ted H. Gathe argues that the city has the right to define "dependent" pretty much as it chooses, since state law does not specifically define the term. Gov. Locke's one-year-old policy of offering heath benefits to gay partners of state workers was never put into law by the Legislature but was simply instituted by a state agency. Gathe says that, based on the comments and questions from the judges last week, "We're optimistic the ruling will be in our favor."
However, the case is by no means a sure thing. The Alliance Defense Fund of Scottsdale, Ariz., which is underwriting the Vancouver litigation, has used similar arguments to challenge same-sex benefit laws in about a dozen states. Many of the suits have failed, but the Alliance has also prevailed in some unlikely places. In 1999, for example, the Massachusetts Supreme Court threw out the city of Boston's domestic partner policy in a ruling that applied statewide. Last year the Alliance also won in Virginia's highest court.
Mark D. Fefer