Court Upholds San Franciscos Landmark Domestic Partnership Law

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Lambda applauds ruling that approves equal benefits for equal work
June 15, 2001

(LOS ANGELES, June 14, 2001) — In a unanimous decision that Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said could help advance domestic partner benefits around the country, a federal appeals court on Thursday upheld key parts of San Francisco’s landmark Equal Benefits Ordinance that requires city contractors to extend benefits to their unmarried employees.

In S.D. Myers v. San Francisco, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the arguments of a contractor that wanted to do business with San Francisco, yet refused to offer domestic partnership benefits to its unmarried employees. The Court stated that cities have a legitimate interest in enacting these laws and refusing to contract with businesses that discriminate against unmarried families, gay and non-gay alike. Additionally, the Court found that there is no undue economic burden placed upon contractors by requiring that they provide domestic partnership benefits.

Lambda joined with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project to provide amicus support to the city at the trial level and on appeal.

San Francisco was the first local government to stop granting contracts to companies with benefit plans that discriminate against unmarried employees, including lesbians and gay men. S.D. Myers, an Ohio-based company whose owners describe themselves as Christian fundamentalists, sued San Francisco because the company believes it should not have to obey laws that conflict with its owners’ religious beliefs.

Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer C. Pizer of Lambda’s Western Regional Office said, “This decision gives a seal of approval to all municipalities like San Francisco that want their tax dollars spent on companies that treat fairly all their employees who have families.”

She added, “It affirms both the legitimacy of San Francisco’s interest in furthering workplace equality, and that non-discriminatory family benefits plans do not impose any undue economic or other burdens on companies who want city contracts.”

Lambda Deputy Legal Director Michael Adams said, “We are pleased that the Court has given a green light to cities like San Francisco that don’t want to do business with companies that discriminate. It’s a good day for gay and lesbian employees and all others who support fairness.”

Since its creation in 1997, the ordinance has spurred thousands of companies and municipalities to offer domestic partnership benefits. From the ‘Big Three’ automakers to Pacbell/SBC, Chevron, J.P. Morgan and the San Francisco 49ers, companies nationwide are offering family benefits to their unmarried employees; and Seattle, Los Angeles, Berkeley, and San Mateo County have since adopted San Francisco-style legislation for their contracts. Florida’s Broward County has taken similar steps.

Lambda is still waiting for a decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Air Transport Association v. San Francisco, which also challenges San Francisco’s EBO and raises different federal issues. In addition, one last legal issue remains to be addressed by the district court in the S.D. Myers case.

In 1999, U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken dismissed the entire S.D. Myers case, brought by televangelist Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, which asserted that the EBO violates the Commerce Clause, federal due process guarantees, and the California Constitution.

S.D. Myers appealed immediately and argued before the Ninth Circuit last November.

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

(S.D. Myers v. San Francisco, No. 97-04463 CW

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