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ACLU Forum: Domestic Partnership Benefits for City Employees

 ACLU of Utah Reporter: Fall 2005

On September 21, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson made Utah history when he signed an executive order extending health benefits to city employees’ gay and unmarried partners. ACLU of Utah attorney Margaret Plane answers questions about the order and opponents’ claims that Utah’s constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage also prohibits state and local governments from providing these types of benefits.

Where do partnership benefits for Salt Lake City employees stand? 
Although the executive order’s effective date was September 21, it may take a court order before employees can enroll their unmarried partners in the insurance benefits plan. That’s because less than one week after the order was signed, the agency that administers health insurance for state and local government employees in Utah filed a petition with the state court requesting clarification about whether Utah law prohibits Salt Lake City from offering health insurance benefits to domestic partners. The Public Employees Health Program (PEHP) is awaiting an answer from the court before amending Salt Lake City’s health insurance contracts.

What are domestic partners?
Under Mayor Anderson’s order, a qualified domestic partner is someone who has a long term, committed relationship with a Salt Lake City employee, who lives with that employee, and who shares financial obligations with that employee. Domestic partners may not be related by blood to a degree that would prohibit marriage. Under the city’s definition, a domestic partnership can be same-sex or heterosexual.

Does Amendment 3 prohibit this kind of a benefit?
Absolutely not. Our state constitutional amendment prohibits government from giving same-sex relationships the “same or substantially equivalent legal effect” as marriage, and providing health insurance benefits to same-sex partners is simply not equivalent to marriage. In fact, health insurance is not one of the statutory rights or benefits of marriage, and employers aren’t obligated to provide health insurance for their employees’ husbands or wives—or even, for that matter, for their employees.

Does Utah law prohibit Salt Lake City from offering this benefit to its employees?
No. In its petition, PEHP refers to Utah’s Marriage Recognition Policy. This statute, like the amendment, says that Utah will not recognize any law creating benefits that are “substantially equivalent to those provided” to married couples. Again, the opportunity to buy into your partner’s health insurance plan is in no way “substantially equivalent” to marriage. Moreover, the statute expressly states that it does not impair contractual rights, and the administration of a benefits package is clearly a contract between the government employer and its employees.

Have other courts looked at similar cases?
Yes. Coincidentally, on the same day PEHP filed its petition, a state court in Michigan ruled that that state’s new constitutional amendment does not preclude city and state government employers from providing health insurance benefits to domestic partners. While Michigan’s constitutional amendment is worded slightly differently from Utah’s, much of the court’s reasoning applies to Salt Lake City’s situation. In its ruling, the court wrote: “There is nothing in the amendment that evidences the intent of the people to go beyond disallowing same sex marriage and civil unions to preventing employers from voluntarily providing health insurance benefits to those who meet certain criteria that the employer has established.” The court went on to state: “The criteria [for receiving health care benefits] . . . pale in comparison to the myriad of legal rights and responsibilities accorded to those with marital status.” The Michigan court’s reasoning applies with equal force in this case.

What happens now?
Salt Lake City hopes to offer the benefits starting November 1, 2005, and both PEHP and Salt Lake City have requested that the judicial process be expedited. We presume the court will uphold Salt Lake City’s right to provide these benefits to its employees. If it does not, the ACLU of Utah will consider what role we might play.