Washington's High Court Urged to Uphold Vancouver's Domestic Partner Benefits

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Lambda helps defend insurance plan for unmarried government employees
May 29, 2001

(LOS ANGELES, May 29, 2001) — Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund is urging the Washington Supreme Court to reject a conservative taxpayer’s assault on Vancouver’s domestic partner benefits plan, and to leave in place the city’s family benefits plan for unmarried city employees.

On Thursday, May 31, the Washington Supreme Court will hear argument in Heinsma v. City of Vancouver; afterwards Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer C. Pizer of Lambda’s Western Regional Office will be available for comment.

“Vancouver recognizes that providing equal insurance benefits to unmarried city employees is simply the fair thing to do,” said Pizer who helped author the joint amicus brief filed by Lambda, the ACLU of Washington, and the National ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. She added, “Vancouver and its residents benefit when all city employees can rest assured that their families have basic insurance coverage, because peace of mind improves morale and effectiveness in the workplace.”

Lambda and the ACLU argue that home rule cities like Vancouver, under Washington law, have substantial power to govern themselves; their brief also outlines why Vancouver, as an employer, is well-served by its partner benefits plan. The brief points out that there is no conflict between this local law and state law, in that Washington law protects people in unmarried relationships in various ways. Additionally, the Lambda/ACLU brief refutes Heinsma’s argument that the local law creates confusion between the limited, taxable partner benefits offered to unmarried city workers, and the comprehensive legal recognition provided by Washington’s marriage laws.

In 1998, the city of Vancouver extended its family benefits plan to to unmarried, gay and non-gay, city employees.

The conservative Virginia-based Northstar Legal Center sued the city in 1999 on behalf of a local resident, Roni Heinsma, contending that Vancouver cannot extend health benefits or any other protection to unmarried employees in committed relationships because doing so purportedly would conflict with Washington State marriage law.

In June 2000, the trial court rejected Heinsma’s arguments and ruled definitively in the city’s favor, pointing out that Vancouver has not tried to regulate family relationships in general as the marriage laws do, but instead is simply ensuring reasonable compensation for its own employees. Heinsma then appealed.

Shortly after receiving the Lambda/ACLU amicus brief, the Court of Appeals, on its own motion, asked the Washington Supreme Court to accept review of the case.

Cooperating Attorney Karolyn Ann Hicks of Seattle’s Stokes Lawrence, P.S. drafted the amicus brief, with assistance from Pizer and Aaron Caplan of the ACLU of Washington.

Lambda has helped cities and counties around the country defend domestic partner benefits for unmarried employees, defeating attacks in areas such as Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Santa Barbara, Pima County, Arizona, and Broward County, Florida.

Lambda is the oldest and largest legal organization dedicated to the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV and AIDS. With its national headquarters in New York, Lambda has regional offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta and will open an office in Dallas in 2002.

WHAT: Oral argument in Heinsma v. City of Vancouver

WHO: Lambda Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer C. Pizer will be available for comment after the hearing. Her cell phone number is 213-590-5903. WHERE: Washington Supreme Court, 415 12th Street West, Olympia, Washington WHEN: Thursday, May 31, 2001, 1:30 p.m. PDT


(Heinsma v. City of Vancouver, No. 26223-1-II) — 30 —

Contact: Jennifer C. Pizer 323-937-2728 x 223, 213-590-5903 (cell); Peg Byron 212-809-8585 x 230, 888-987-1984 (pager)


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