Washington's High Court Upholds Vancouver's Domestic Partnership Law

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Lambda applauds ruling that maintains benefits for unmarried government employees
August 24, 2001

(LOS ANGELES, August 24, 2001) -- More families remain eligible for health insurance and other vital employment benefits thanks to a court ruling in Olympia, Washington, the latest in a long line of decisions across the country supporting domestic partner benefits for government workers, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said Friday.

Vancouver has provided domestic partner benefits for the dependents of its unmarried workers since 1998, but the program was threatened by a lawsuit brought with the help of a right-wing legal group.

The Washington Supreme Court rejected the taxpayer's assault, ruling 8-1 in Heinsma v. City of Vancouver. Among other holdings, the Court rejected the 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.

"The Court has reinforced security and fairness for more families in Vancouver and throughout Washington," said Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer C. Pizer of Lambda's Western Regional Office. Pizer helped author the joint amicus brief filed by Lambda, the ACLU of Washington, and the National ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.

Added Lambda Legal Director Ruth E. Harlow, "At a time when the latest Census figures show that same-sex couples are living in virtually every community across the country, we are gratified that yet another state high court has rejected a fringe attempt to block insurance and other protections for these families."

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

After Vancouver extended its family benefits plan to unmarried, gay and non-gay, city employees, the Virginia-based Northstar Legal Center sued the city in 1999 on behalf of one 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.

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 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.

(Heinsma v. City of Vancouver, No. 70895-9) - 30 -



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