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Workers sue
Bellevue, open new front in Washington gay rights fight

Workers sue
Bellevue, open new front in Washington gay rights fight

Larry deGroen knew when he became a firefighter in Bellevue, Wash., 12 years ago that the city wouldn't give his partner, Thomas Dixon, certain benefits it extends to the families of heterosexual employees. It was something DeGroen was prepared to live with.

But in late 2005, Dixon's father died. Instead of giving DeGroen two days of paid funeral leave, as it would have for a heterosexual spouse in such a situation, the city gave him none, according to a lawsuit he filed Tuesday with two other gay Bellevue emergency workers.

"I started thinking, What if my partner passed away?" DeGroen said. "It was clear to me that they would treat him as if he was a stranger to me, and that's not something I'm OK with."

The lawsuit, filed by Lambda Legal against the city of Bellevue in King County superior court, opens a new front in the fight for gay rights in Washington State, and it is a response to the state supreme court's 5-4 ruling last year upholding Washington's ban on same-sex marriage.

The majority opinion in that case noted that the court was considering only whether gays had a right to marry: "We thus have no cause for considering whether denial of statutory rights and obligations to same-sex couples...violates the state or federal constitution."

The benefits at issue in the lawsuit were not among those covered by a bill passed by the legislature this month to create domestic partnerships for same-sex couples.

DeGroen, of Seattle, said that after he missed one day of work to attend the funeral, the Bellevue Fire Department made him pay it back by working a full day of overtime. Angry and humiliated, he met with the Bellevue mayor, the deputy mayor, and the city manager each individually, to no avail. Each of those officials is named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Bellevue spokesman Tim Waters said the city's policy of denying domestic-partner benefits is financially motivated.

"In recent years the city has adopted a no new benefits policy," Waters said. "We've been trying to be good fiscal stewards."

He also said that city officials have suggested that unions representing city workers seek to win domestic-partner benefits through collective bargaining. Each time, however, the city's negotiators have rejected them.

The unions "could push the issue through arbitration," Waters suggested, reserving further comment until the city reviews the lawsuit.

The other plaintiffs are Faun Patzer and George Einsetler. Patzer has been a Bellevue firefighter for 17 years and was the first woman in the department to complete its paramedic training program. Einsetler is the city's lead 911 dispatcher.

"The employment benefits that are provided to heterosexual employees for their spouses routinely are valued at approximately 30% of total employee compensation," the lawsuit said. "The city's denial of family benefits to its gay and lesbian employees with same-sex life partners accordingly provides those employees with the equivalent of an estimated 30% less compensation, requiring them to perform equal work for less pay."

"I'm a person who does the job, and I feel I deserve to be treated like my heterosexual coworkers," DeGroen said. (Gene Johnson, AP Legal Affairs Writer)

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