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ACLU joins battle over partner benefits

Filing targets the refusal of insurer to extend coverage

The ACLU has jumped into the fight for domestic partner benefits, submitting a legal brief in support of Mayor Rocky Anderson's executive order to extend health insurance and other benefits to partners of gay, lesbian and heterosexual employees.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah joined city employee Dianna Goodliffe and the American Federal of State, County and Municipal Employees to file the document this past week, rejecting arguments that domestic partner benefits violate state law.

The groups' statements are in response to a request for a declaratory judgment by the Public Employees Health Program (PEHP) asking whether Anderson's order is legal. PEHP has said it will not extend coverage to unmarried couples until a ruling is made.

"Providing domestic partner benefits in no way violates Utah law," ACLU attorney Margaret Plane said. "Employee benefits are in no way equivalent to marriage. This is really about employment benefits, not marriage benefits."

The amicus brief filed by Plane's group argues that Utah's constitutional definition of marriage as "legal union of a man and a woman" does not preclude benefits to gay and lesbian couples. Moreover, Plane added, extending those benefits is good public policy because it promotes equal pay for equal work.

"The issues presented in this case have significant implications for the civil rights of employees — whether gay or lesbian or straight — across the state of Utah: the right to be free from discrimination because of the nature of their relationships and the right to equal compensation for the work they do," the brief states.

That equality is particularly important to Dianna Goodliffe, a co-signer of the ACLU brief and a Salt Lake City employee. Goodliffe, who works as a victim advocate in the city's police department, is unable to cover her domestic partner, Lisa, with health benefits.

That obstacle, she said, has meant that Lisa is unable to stay home with their daughter, who was recently diagnosed with diabetes. Instead, Lisa has to keep her job to get health insurance and Goodliffe has to keep hers because her daughter is covered by her benefits.

"I would like the option. Most other two-parent households can cover each other if they're both working, and it becomes an option to quit and stay home," Goodliffe said. "I have limits that other people don't necessarily have to have or endure."

Besides limited options, Goodliffe added the lack of benefits for her partner means that she is not getting the same compensation as her co-workers. That disparity is one of the main reasons the ACLU picked up the case, Plane added.

"They are raising families. Dianna wants to be able to protect her family and provide for her family as married heterosexual couples do," Plane said.

Another legal action is also pending in 3rd District Court regarding the mayor's executive order. A civil lawsuit filed by three taxpayers and the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative legal group, opposes the order.

The lawsuit claims Anderson's order violates Utah's Defense of Marriage Act and the Utah Constitution by providing gay couples and unmarried heterosexual couples with equivalent legal status to traditional marriage. The constitution forbids marriage between people of the same gender and bars any other domestic union from receiving the same legal effect as a traditional marriage.

The Alliance Defense Fund has asked the court to combine the two legal actions and Salt Lake City filed a memorandum saying it would not object to that as long as the issue can be settled quickly.

The city's memo notes that the plaintiffs in that case didn't serve legal documents on the city until a month after filing their lawsuit and "have done little to advance the matter since that time."

Third District Judge Stephen Roth has set Nov. 17 for the next court hearing on the PEHP action.