Gay couples win right to benefits in Philadelphia
December 08 2004 12:00 AM ET
In a victory for gay couples Pennsylvania's supreme court ruled on Monday that Philadelphia has a right to give city employees in same-sex "life partnerships" the same type of worker benefits now enjoyed only by married couples. The justices overturned a lower court, which ruled two years ago that city lawmakers had overstepped their authority and created "a new marital status" by recognizing same-sex relationships. Only the state, that court said, had a right to regulate marriage.
Writing for the high court, Justice Russell M. Nigro said Philadelphia hadn't created a new type of marriage at all, or trampled on state sovereignty, when it decided in 1998 to let the long-term romantic partners of gay and lesbian city employees participate in city health and benefits plans. "We do not believe that the city's mere designation of 'life partnership' as a 'marital status' demonstrates that it was equating life partnerships with state-sanctioned marriage," Nigro wrote. "Indeed, even though the legislation affords life partners certain limited rights and benefits that spouses also enjoy, those rights and benefits are but a small fraction of what marriage affords to its participants." Even with the law, he noted, same-sex couples still wouldn't have the right to file joint tax returns or avoid testifying against each other in a criminal trial or automatically receive workers' compensation when their partner dies.
William Devlin, who sued to stop the city's plan, vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. "The Pennsylvania supreme court is confused on this if they don't think that the city of Philadelphia has created a new class of marital rights," said Devlin, founder of the Urban Family Council, a Philadelphia group that opposes abortion and homosexuality. "I guess what they're saying is that 'the family' is anybody who has appeared on Jerry Springer," he added, referring to the television talk show whose programs often feature people in unorthodox and destructive relationships.
Mayor John Street's spokeswoman, Barbara Grant, said the city's intent was not to recognize gay marriage, which is prohibited in Pennsylvania, but to treat gay employees equally when it came to pay and benefits. "We've held very firmly to our belief that you can't discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation," she said. "It's a fairness issue."
The city's victory wasn't complete, however. The court disallowed other parts of the statute that would have prohibited discrimination against couples who registered as life partners and given them an exemption from the city's real estate transfer tax. The justices said the discrimination provision was redundant because other city laws already prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and improper because it would have invited people living outside the city to register as life partners. The court said Philadelphia's powers should stop at its borders.
On the issue of the transfer tax the justices said Pennsylvania law requires that taxes be assessed evenly within a class of people, and the city hadn't adequately justified giving a tax break to some same-sex couples but not others in long-term nonmarital relationships, like two cousins sharing a house and bank account. Grant said the city was reviewing whether to appeal those portions of the