Montana couples' discrimination claim dismissed

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com October 22 2002 12:00 AM ET

A lawyer for two lesbian couples suing the Montana university system over health benefits says it was no surprise that the state Human Rights Commission has dismissed their discrimination claim. Beth Brenneman, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the discrimination claim had to be assessed by the commission before moving on to district court. She said the dismissal was anticipated. "The way the human rights act is written, it exclusively limits on what basis you can be discriminated against, and sexual orientation is not one," she said. University of Montana professor Carla Grayson and her partner, Adrianne Neff, and Carol Snetsinger of UM biological sciences and her partner, Nancy Siegel, filed the suit in February. The couples contend that the state university system violated the Montana constitution by denying health and other benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian employees. A few days after the suit was filed, Grayson and Neff's home in Missoula was destroyed in a fire that police say was set on purpose.

The cases for Neff and Siegel were dismissed because they are not university employees, but Brenneman said Snetsinger's and Grayson's claims were ultimately thrown out as well. "I wasn't surprised at all," Brenneman said. "This is a constitutional law case, and it's going to ultimately be decided in the courts." The case is now before district judge Thomas Honzel of Helena.

LeRoy Schramm, chief attorney for the higher education system, has asked that the case be dismissed, saying the complaint can be resolved only through the legislature. The university system is simply following state law, which requires marriage to award benefits, he said. The ACLU has argued that the Montana constitution guarantees citizens equal treatment under the law. If they don't qualify for insurance because they're gay, then the policy is inherently unconstitutional, the ACLU contends.