A Montana university system policy denying health insurance benefits to partners of gay employees is not unconstitutional, a district judge ruled Tuesday.
In throwing out a lawsuit brought by two lesbian couples against the University of Montana, Judge Thomas Honzel said the policy is based on the marital status of employees, not on their sexual orientation, and that it is a "reasonable and objective standard" for determining who qualifies for employment benefits.
Honzel's decision addressed claims by Carol Snetsinger and her partner, Nancy Siegel, and Carla Grayson and her partner, Adrienne Neff. Snetsinger and Grayson, who are employed by the University of Montana, sued the university system and charged that it was unfairly denying their domestic partners health insurance offered through the university.
UM offers health insurance only to employees, their spouses, and their children. Heterosexual couples who are not married but file an affidavit of common-law marriage, can also qualify. Because same-sex couples are barred by law from marrying, however, they cannot obtain health insurance for their partners through the university system.
In his ruling Honzel said that because marital status is a legally permissible means of classifying people for employment benefits, the policy doesn't violate the constitutional rights of university system employees. Marriage is a legal bond distinguishable from other relationships, Honzel said. "Although the named plaintiffs have committed relationships with their respective partners, they are not subject to the legal responsibilities and obligations which are imposed on married persons," he added.