Florida Appeals Court Squashes Challenge to Domestic Partnership Law

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Lambda persuades court to uphold county's benefits to unmarried couples
September 21, 2000

(ATLANTA, September 21, 2000) — A Florida Court of Appeals upheld Broward County’s domestic partnership ordinance, derailing another right-wing effort to block domestic partner benefits for public employees, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said Thursday.

“It is gratifying that another court recognizes that these employee benefits are lawful as well as beneficial. This ordinance will help Broward compete better for qualified employees, and give more families vital security,” said Stephen R. Scarborough, staff attorney with Lambda’s Southern Regional Office. “We still face an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, but this decision is step toward more fairness and security for Broward County workers.”

With Staff Attorney Marvin C. Peguese, Scarborough co-authored Lambda’s amicus brief in Lowe v. Broward County, successfully urging the court to allow Broward to join the many cities and counties nation wide that have instituted domestic partner coverage for their workforces.

The county, which includes Fort Lauderdale, is among the first public employers in the country also to encourage its contractors, through a bidding preference, to offer family benefits to unmarried as well as married employees.

“There is a national trend toward recognizing the importance and feasability of providing domestic partner benefits,” noted Peguese, adding, “Broward is in step with over 2000 public and private employers, like Atlanta, Chicago, the Big Three automakers, IBM, and United Airlines, that offer domestic partner benefits to promote equality and attract the most qualified workers.”

Broward County adopted its Domestic Partner Act (DPA) in April 1999, creating a domestic partner registry and providing health and other benefits for partners of county employees.

Lawrence Lowe, represented by the conservative Northstar Legal Center, sued the county, claiming that the DPA conflicted with Florida’s state law by creating a “marriage-like” relationship, and that the county exceeded its authority by enacting the ordinance. The state Circuit Court rejected all of Lowe’s claims, and he appealed.

On Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the Florida Court of Appeals for the Fourth District unanimously agreed with Lambda and Broward County to hold that the law did not conflict with Florida domestic relations law.

Writing for the appeals panel, Justice Robert Gross rejected Lowe’s claim that domestic partners are not “dependents” and therefore don’t qualify for benefits: “The DPA’s definition of ‘dependent’ is consistent with the term’s plain meaning...” The judge referred to the The American Heritage College Dictionary definition of a dependent as “a person who depends on or needs someone or something for aid, support, favor, etc.”

Lambda has defeated similar arguments made against domestic partner benefits programs in Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and California. Lambda authored its amicus brief on behalf of groups including Equality Florida, Fort Lauderdale Business Network, Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Fort Lauderdale, Gays United Against Repression and Discrimination, Parents Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, the Political Advocacy Coalition Political Action Committee, and the Sunshine Cathedral Metropolitan Community Church.

Headquartered in New York and with regional offices in Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles, Lambda is the nation’s oldest and largest legal organization serving lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS.

(Lowe v. Broward County, No. 99-01664)

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Contact:Stephen R. Scarborough 404-897-1880 x 23; Peg Byron 212-809-8585 x 230, 888-987-1984 (pager)


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