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Arizona Defends Cut to Gay Partner Benefits

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By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on February 15, 2011 8:46 AM

Federal law does not require that gay and lesbian couples receive health care benefits or any other benefits of marriage. Arizona state law also does not grant domestic partners these rights. However, prior to 2009, state employees were entitled to gay partner benefits, meaning health care and other insurance options. That year, citing budgetary reasons, Governor Jan Brewer cut the Arizona gay partner benefits from the state's budget.

Bringing suit on behalf of LGBT state employees, Lambda Legal argued at the District Court level that denying employees of the state of Arizona gay partner benefits discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation. The judge issued an injunction, stopping the repeal from going into effect while the case is heard. An appeal of that injunction was heard yesterday in the 9th Circuit.

Plaintiffs put forth two main arguments. First, they argued that stripping gay and lesbian employees of partner benefits violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Second, they argued that the state was punishing people for exercising their right to privacy.

The equal protection argument is virtually the same as that seen in the Proposition 8 case out of California--there is no rational basis for the state to discriminate against same-sex couples. It is the privacy argument that is most unique.

The Constitution guarantees an unspecified right to privacy, which as defined in Lawrence v. Texas, includes the right to have an intimate relationship with the person of your choice. This right is considered to be fundamental, and is protected against unwarranted government intrusion. If the government legislates against a citizen's right to privacy, it must have a compelling reason to do so.

The plaintiffs are arguing that entering into a same-sex relationship is a fundamental right, and to punish them for exercising that right is an unconstitutional burden. Arizona, however, argues that the budgetary problems the state is facing is a compelling enough reason to cut the Arizona gay partner benefits from the budget.

The importance of this case may not be readily apparent. When Proposition 8 came before the 9th Circuit, it was a chance for the appellate court to rule on whether sexual orientation discrimination is unconstitutional. The 9th Circuit decided to punt on that question. This case raises the same argument against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but under the guise of the Arizona gay partner benefits--a less politicized issue. The court will have a much more difficult time avoiding the real issue at hand, potentially forcing them to finally make a ruling.

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