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Judge: AZ can’t end domestic partner benefits for state employees

Judge: AZ can’t end domestic partner benefits for state employees

A federal judge on Friday issued an injunction preventing the State of Arizona from enforcing a law that would have prevented lesbian and gay state employees and their domestic partners (and the children of those partners) from receiving health benefits, referring to it as illegal discrimination.

The bill, passed by the legislature last session and signed by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, eliminated coverage for non-spouse domestic partners, whether they were heterosexual or gay. The lawsuit, filed by Lambda Legal, said that heterosexual couples had the option of receiving benefits simply by getting married, but gay and lesbian couples can’t do so in Arizona.

United States District Judge John Sedwick agreed, citing the Arizona constitutional amendment that bars same-sex marriages, and said the state is making benefits for the partners of its employees available “on terms that are a legal impossibility for gay and lesbian couples.’’

The state argued, among other things, that the law saves Arizona money, to which Judge Sedwick addressed in his 33-page decision:

“Contrary to the State’s suggestion, it is not equitable to lay the burden of the State budgetary shortfall on homosexual employees, any more than on any other distinct class, such as employees with green eyes or red hair.”

He said the evidence shows that the cost of providing benefits to then partners of gay and lesbian workers is no more than 0.27 percent of total health care spending by the state. And even if cuts had to be made elsewhere, the judge said, that still doesn’t make the law right.

Arizona lawmakers included the provision to eliminate domestic partner health benefits for gay state employees as part of a last-minute budget deal signed by Brewer last September, while retaining spousal health benefits for heterosexual workers. Friday’s injunction barring enforcement of the insurance cut-off will take effect in ten days.

The State can appeal the ruling immediately to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, or proceed to defend the discriminatory budget provision on the merits in the District Court.

About 800 state employees are affected. State officials have not announced whether they will appeal the ruling.

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