The Montana university system's policy of denying employees' same-sex partners the health insurance available to heterosexual workers' spouses is unconstitutional, the Montana supreme court ruled in a 4-3 decision Thursday.
The policy violates the Montana constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law, the court said in reversing a 2002 decision by district judge Thomas Honzel of Helena.
The case originated when two women employed at the University of Montana in Missoula challenged the university's refusal to let them buy health insurance for their female partners, who were not university employees. Carol Snetsinger and Carla Grayson, who no longer work for the school, said the policy was an affront to dignity as well as discriminatory.
Joining the women and respective partners Nancy Siegel and Adrianne Neff in the lawsuit was the Montana gay rights group Pride Inc. Advocates for the women included the Montana Human Rights Network, the MEA-MFT teachers' union, and several church parishes. The leadership of the Republican-controlled state legislature sided with the university system, as did the Montana Catholic Conference and Focus on the Family.
Snetsinger, Grayson, and their partners did not ask the supreme court to address the issue of same-sex marriage in Montana, where marriage is defined as the union of a man and a woman. The women said the case was strictly a claim that the university benefit policy violates constitutional rights to equal protection, dignity, and privacy and the right to pursue life's basic necessities and to seek safety, health, and happiness.
In offering benefits to dependents of employees, the university system limited eligibility to spouses and certain children. Those eligible included partners who had signed a common-law marriage affidavit. "A closer look at the university system's policy discloses that marital status...plays little if any role in determining who is eligible for benefits," the supreme court majority wrote. "Under the policy, the partner of a nongay employee would qualify for benefits by signing an affidavit, when the partner of a gay employee would not qualify for the same benefits when signing the same affidavit."
Based on that, the district court erred in its equal-protection analysis, the supreme court said. "In truth, unmarried opposite-sex couples are able to avail themselves of health benefits under the university system's policy while unmarried same-sex couples are denied the health benefits," the court said. "These two groups, although similarly situated in all respects other than sexual orientation, are not treated equally and fairly."
There is "no justification for treating the two groups differently," said the court's majority opinion, signed by justices Jim Regnier, Jim Nelson, Patricia Cotter, and William Leaphart.
Dissenting justice Jim Rice said the court had radically altered common-law marriage in Montana and reached "the dewpoint of duplicity" in contending it did not do so. Justice John Warner concurred in Rice's dissent. In a separate dissent, Chief Justice Karla Gray said the majority ignored the district court's analysis of the issues in the case.
She also disputed the analysis of common-law marriage and said the university system's policy on insurance has reflected classes "based entirely on the kinds of marriages recognized by Montana law, not sexual orientation." She continued, "For purposes of this case, the difference between the 'classes' is that one class involves a spouse in a legally recognized marital relationship and the other class involves a committed partner in a relationship which under current Montana law does not--and cannot--constitute a marriage in any legal sense."
In a passionate special concurrence with the majority opinion, Nelson wrote that gays and lesbians plead for respect and equal justice, but are answered by their government and institutions with "intolerance and bigotry, albeit impeccably adorned in sanctimonious rhetoric, sterile logic, and hollow
He said that "majoritarian politics relegates gays and lesbians to a position of political powerlessness," and noted that although the Montana judiciary decriminalized homosexual sex, the legislature has refused to strike a law prohibiting same-sex activity between consenting adults.
Gray responded to the concurrence by writing that "we all have passions that run deep and strong.... For myself, however, the closer I stay to the law and away from personal passions, the better I perform this very difficult job."