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Montana high court hears controversial DP benefits case

Montana high court hears controversial DP benefits case

A state university system policy that denies health benefits to partners of gay employees should be ruled an unconstitutional affront to the rights of privacy and dignity, lawyers for two former university employees told the Montana supreme court on Thursday. Education officials have no legitimate reason for denying health insurance to the lesbian partners of two former University of Montana employees, the attorneys argued. "It's essential to have the autonomy to make the intimate and very personal decision to enter into a same-sex relationship," said Holly Franz, an attorney for the four women. But a lawyer for the university system said the policy is reasonably based on the state law defining marriage as a male-female relationship and that the high court would have to repeal that concept if it finds the policy unacceptable. LeRoy Schramm, representing the commissioner of higher education's office, advised the court not to go that far. "This is a case for judicial restraint," he said. "This is a political issue that should be solved in the political arena." The seven-member court, which heard the arguments before a roomful of spectators, is expected to issue a ruling sometime next year. The case centers on two couples, Carol Snetsinger and Nancy Siegel, who live in Missoula, and Carla Grayson and Adrianne Neff, now living in Ann Arbor, Mich. Snetsinger and Grayson were UM employees when they filed a lawsuit in early 2002 after the Missoula school refused to extend health care benefits to their partners. A district judge in Helena threw out the women's lawsuit a year ago, concluding the policy was properly based on their marital status and not on their sexual orientation. National organizations got involved in the case on both sides, with many of the arguments suggesting the case is a referendum on the institution of conventional marriage and family. Tamara Lange, a lawyer with the Lesbian and Gay Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the university system policy is all that's at issue in the case. While the policy allows unmarried heterosexual employees to get benefits for their partners by signing a statement of common-law marriage, gay and lesbian employees have no similar option, she told the justices. The case is not about the right to health insurance but rather about the right to be treated equally, Lange said. A person's ability to marry has nothing to do with the need to have health insurance for a partner, regardless of gender, she said. Franz said the benefits policy treats her clients' relationships as "second class" and interferes with their decisions on how to live their lives. The message is that no matter how long two people have lived together or how committed they are to each other, a same-sex relationship cannot qualify for benefits for an employee's dependents, she said. Schramm argued the suit has broader implications and the potential effect on Montana's marriage law cannot be ignored. "Everyone recognizes there is more at stake than the university policy here," he said. "The university system doesn't give two hoots about what the marriage statute says," Schramm said. If the law was changed, the policy relying on it simply would change as well, he added. Expanding benefits to same-sex partners would be difficult to administer because such relationships are tough to define, Schramm said. Administrative convenience and the marriage law are sufficient justifications for the policy, he said. Several justices wondered whether the policy could be altered to no longer be based on the legal definition of marriage. Schramm acknowledged it could but said that doesn't mean that relying on the law is unreasonable or unconstitutional.

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