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Suit seeks equal benefits at Montana universities

Suit seeks equal benefits at Montana universities

In a brief filed Monday the American Civil Liberties Union has asked the Montana supreme court to require the Montana University System to provide lesbian and gay employees an equal opportunity to purchase health insurance and other employee benefits for their partners. "We are asking the Montana supreme court to recognize that lesbian and gay employees at the Montana University System deserve the same compensation as all other employees," said Beth Brenneman, legal director of the ACLU of Montana. "When generally 40% of employment compensation comes from benefits, denying benefits to one group of people means denying them equal pay for equal work." The ACLU's brief argues that the university system's policy of excluding lesbian and gay employees from equal benefits violates the equal protection guarantees and rights to privacy and dignity under the state constitution. Married employees at the state's seven campuses have the option of providing health insurance, disability coverage, and other benefits for their spouses. Even unmarried, committed opposite-sex couples can provide their partners with benefits by signing a statement of common-law marriage. In educational institutions across the country, similar statements are currently used to establish a same-sex partner's eligibility to participate in domestic-partner insurance plans. "By making benefits contingent on marriage, the university system makes it impossible for lesbian and gay employees to take advantage of benefits that are available to other employees," said Tamara Lange, staff attorney with the Lesbian and Gay Rights Project of the ACLU. "Montana's constitution promises equal protection for everyone. The fact that same-sex couples can't marry doesn't mean the state can discriminate against them in employment." The ACLU originally filed the lawsuit in February 2002. In November the district court judge dismissed the case without a trial. The case is now before the Montana supreme court on appeal from that decision.

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