California businesses must treat registered partners the same as spouses
A story published today in the San Diego Union Tribune reported that the California Supreme Court, in a decision with potentially far-reaching implications, ruled that businesses have to give registered domestic partners the same benefits extended to legally married spouses.
Ruling in a case involving a lesbian couple who sued Bernardo Heights Country Club in Rancho Bernardo over membership privileges, the justices issued a decision yesterday that firmly placed domestic partners on the same legal footing as married couples in dealings with businesses.
The ruling affirmed the state domestic partnership law, which went into effect Jan. 1, but sidestepped the larger issue of the full extent to which "marital status" is a protected category under the state's civil rights law.
The court said that law, known as the Unruh Act, bans marital status discrimination such as against registered domestic partners by businesses in some circumstances.
Associate Justice Carlos Moreno, who wrote the decision, said the court was not "concerned with marital status discrimination generally but discrimination against domestic partners outlawed in the Domestic Partner Act."
During oral arguments in May, the justices indicated they might decide the case on those grounds.
Still, the decision was seen as important because it confirmed the reach and meaning of the state's strong domestic partnership law, which gives many of the same benefits married couples have to same-sex couples and to unmarried opposite-sex couples in which both partners are 62 or older.
So far, about 30,000 people have registered with the state as domestic partners.
"We did not get everything we wanted, but we got most of it," said Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which represented plaintiffs B. Birgit Koebke and Kendall French.
"Looking forward, what is going to matter here is people in a same-sex relationship can get equal treatment from businesses, and they can get them by registering as domestic partners the same as other people can get them from marrying," he said.
The case stemmed from a lawsuit Koebke, an avid golfer, filed in 2000. She sued the club over membership policies that allow spouses and children of legally married couples to play for free.
French and Koebke have been partners since 1993. Though Koebke has been a member of the club since 1987 – purchasing a membership for $18,000 – the policies meant French had to pay guest fees and limited her to playing six times a year.
Koebke said the policy discriminated against them and was unfair because in California same-sex couples can't legally marry. The club countered the policy did not discriminate, because it treated all unmarried couples the same.
Lower courts sided with the club. John Shiner, the lawyer for Bernardo Heights, said the high court ruling validated the club's position in some respects.
Because the domestic partnership law did not take effect until this year, Shiner said, the court found "that the distinctions the club made up until that time were legal and valid."
Courts had said that having different policies for married and unmarried people did not automatically violate the state anti-discrimination laws.
The decision yesterday shifted that ground by holding "a business that extends benefits to spouses it denies to registered domestic partners engages in impermissible marital status discrimination."
Lambda's Davidson said businesses such as auto insurance, homeowners insurance or financial services – some which offer discounts to legally married people and not to others – will be affected and now have to offer the same benefits to both.
Van Tenberg, a San Diego lawyer and an expert on law governing private resorts and clubs, said the ruling is a landmark decision.
"This changes the way everyone does business in California," he said. Clubs will have to change bylaws to allow for registered partners, he said, and the larger business community will also have to change.
"If you're a business and offer spousal benefits or privileges of any kind," he said, "you've now got to offer those same benefits to domestic partners."
California law defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. This year, a state court judge said that was unconstitutional, a ruling now on appeal that will ultimately end up in front of the justices.
It was unclear whether the state Supreme Court's decision bodes well for same-sex marriage advocates.
Davidson pointed to a passage where Moreno wrote that the decision to enter into domestic partnership carries the same "consequences" that getting married does.
"In both cases, the consequences of the decision is the creation of a new family unit with all its implications in terms of personal commitment as well as legal rights and obligations," Moreno wrote.
Davidson said such language was encouraging. Barbara Cox, a law professor at California Western School of Law in San Diego and an expert on same-sex law, was more cautious.
"Whether or not it says something about the marriage cases that will be coming – I don't want to guess on that," she said.
Cox said the decision was important. "It seems to me they are sending a pretty clear message that California businesses going forward have to treat registered domestic partners comparable to married couples," she said.
Koebke also welcomed the ruling.
"It's a huge victory," she said. "We just wanted to play golf together. It seems like after today, we will be able to, and so will thousands of other people."
In the ruling, the high court said Koebke and French could not seek damages covering the period before Jan. 1, when the Domestic Partnership Act went into effect.
The justices also upheld a lower court ruling, which said the couple could seek damages on different grounds if they could prove the club discriminated against them by giving some unmarried heterosexual couples benefits that Koebke and French were denied.
The decision sends the case back to Superior Court, where a San Diego judge had dismissed it in 2001.