City Sued Over Gay Partners' Benefits

Two conservative, religious groups sued Cambridge this week over its ordinance that extends rights and benefits usually reserved for family members to gay and lesbian partners of city workers.

The suit, filed jointly by the Catholic Action League and the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a conservative legal group, claims that the 1992 ordinance is both inconsistent with state law and unconstitutional.

Currently, domestic partners have health insurance benefits, hospital and jail visitation rights and access to confidential records that other friends do not.

The two groups can only challenge the health care provisions of the ordinance. Under Massachusetts law, citizens can only raise complaints about how their money is spent.

Last July, in response to a suit filed by the same two groups, the Massachusetts Supreme Court struck down Mayor Thomas A Menino's executive order that extended city health benefits to same-sex couples.

The current suit says that the Cambridge ordinance is inconsistent with a 1955 state law that limits city health insurance benefits to "spouses, those under 19, and those over 19 who cannot care for themselves."

It also claims that this inconsistency is unconstitutional under the "home rule amendment" of the state constitution which states that local laws may not conflict with the state constitution or state laws.

Gary D. Buseck, Executive Director of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, a gay rights legal advocate group, described the suit against Cambridge as "essentially the same" as the July suit against Boston.

Cambridge's domestic partnerships benefits ordinance is significantly different from Boston's, a fact which may preserve the ordinance against litigation, according to former City Councilor Katherine Triantafillou, who participated in the drafting of the ordinance and who has a long-term female partner.

Forty domestic partners recognized under the current statute have been receiving city health insurance, Triantafillou said. She said the law is less likely to be discarded when doing so would deprive people of longstanding benefits.

The Cambridge ordinance gives partners broader benefits than the Boston plan did.

In Massachusetts, the two sides of the domestic partnership debate are facing off both in local suits, like those in Boston and Cambridge, and state legislation.

The SJC said their decision will leave "some household members of some of Boston's employees ...without a critical social necessity, health insurance. That is a reality that must be addressed by the Legislature."

Last November, the Massachusetts senate passed the Domestic Partnership Bill, which would extend health insurance benefits to same-sex partners of state employees and allow municipalities act similarly. The House has yet to put the bill up for public debate.

"These little mean-spirited attacks could be stopped dead by a simple state domestic partnership benefit law," Buseck said of the suits filed against Cambridge and Boston. "If the House passed it and the governor signed it, the case in Cambridge would be moot."

Activists have planned a "Lobby Day" demonstration at the State House Wednesday in support of the bill.

The Lobby Day organizers justify the bill based on equal pay for equal work.

"Since benefits form such a large part of an employee's compensation, the denial of such based on sexual orientation is simple discrimination," Triantafillou said.

The ACLJ newsletter made a case against domestic partnership benefits by saying that, "Christians and all other taxpayers will be forced to subsidize the lifestyles of homosexuals," under such laws.

Triantafillou put the argument another way to highlight what she called the unfairness of the current situation.

"Why should gays subsidize health care benefits for straight couples?" Triantafillou asked.

The ACLJ sees broader implications in the ordinance.

Their newsletter states, "if cities sanction homosexual marriage, even by implementing 'domestic partnership' benefits, it will turn our society and its laws upside down."