California Supreme Court Rules That Businesses Cannot Discriminate Against Domestic Partners
(San Francisco, August 1, 2005)—In a ruling issued today in a case argued by Lambda Legal, the California Supreme Court said that if businesses in California provide benefits to married couples they must also extend them on equal terms to same-sex couples who are registered domestic partners.
Writing for the majority decision in Koebke v. Bernardo Heights Country Club, Justice Carlos R. Moreno wrote, “While creating a family-friendly environment may be a legitimate business interest, that policy is not served when a business discriminates against the domestic partner of one of its members. Rather, by so doing, the business violates the policy favoring domestic partnerships which, like the policy favoring marriage, seeks to promote families as well as reduce discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation.”
“The Court recognized the spirit and intent behind California’s domestic partnership law,” said Jon W. Davidson, Legal Director at Lambda Legal and lead attorney on the case. "We are gratified that the court recognized that couples who register as domestic partners deserve to be treated equally to spouses by businesses in California.”
Today’s ruling was based on California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act. Because the legislative intent of California’s domestic partnership act was to create “substantive legal equity between domestic partners and spouses,” the court found that businesses violate the Unruh Act if they discriminate against registered domestic partners by denying them benefits that are extended to married couples.
Lambda Legal represents B. Birgit Koebke and Kendall French, who were denied full benefit of Koebke’s Bernardo Heights Country Club membership because they are not married. Bernardo Heights Country Club’s membership policy allows a spouse to be included in membership. Although Koebke and French have been domestic partners since 1993, Bernardo Heights Country Club has refused to provide the couple benefits provided spouses, even after the new domestic partnership law went into effect. Lambda Legal appealed the case to the California Supreme Court after a state appeals court ruled last year that Koebke and French could sue Bernardo Heights Country Club for treating them worse than unmarried different-sex couples, but did not order the club to provide same-sex couples the benefits given spouses.
“Today’s ruling brings gay and lesbian couples one step closer to equality,” Davidson said, “but at the end of the day, our clients are still left as second class citizens because they are barred from the right that would have eliminated the need for this case in the first place—the right to marry. We won an important battle today, but we need to continue to fight the fight.”
Since 1995, Koebke has worked to obtain a change to the membership policy, citing heterosexual couples who were not married but able to extend their country club privileges to their partners. Lambda Legal argued that by excluding Koebke and French from its membership policy, Bernardo Heights Country Club was in violation of state laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, marital status and sex.
Koebke bought her Bernardo Heights Country Club membership in 1991 for $18,000. Bernardo Heights told Koebke that if she wanted to play golf with French they could either buy another membership or they could play together just six times a year and pay an additional $40 to $75 in green fees per game of golf. In addition, French could not inherit the membership according to club policy because memberships could not be inherited by a non-spouse.
“This is a great victory for California families,” Koebke said. “Kendall and I are one step closer to being able to play golf at Bernardo Heights on an equal basis. We extend our greatest thanks and appreciation to our attorney Jon Davidson, Legal Director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. our San Diego attorney Paul Kondrick and Marcia Chambers.”
Contact: Mark Roy, Lambda Legal, 212-809-8585, ext: 267
Lambda Legal is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work.