A federal appeals court has blocked Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s (R) effort to take away health benefits from the partners of gay and lesbian state employees, ruling that a state can’t selectively withdraw benefits from same-sex couples. Brewer eliminated health benefits from the spouses of domestic partners – gay or straight, citing budget concerns, but the policy adversely affected same-sex couples who cannot marry in the state due to a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Lambda Legal sued the state on behalf of 10 state employees, and in July of 2010, a district judge rejected the state’s claim that “the elimination of benefits will not harm the families of gay and lesbian employees” and temporarily prevented the benefit cuts, saying that the law “violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal-protection clause by making it impossible for homosexuals to get health coverage for their partners.” Yesterday, the three-judge panel on the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s decision:
The state is correct in asserting that state employees and their families are not constitutionally entitled to health benefits. But when a state chooses to provide such benefits, it may not do so in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner that adversely affects particular groups that may be unpopular. [...]
Defendants nevertheless contend on appeal that this law is rationally related to the state’s interests in cost savings and reducing administrative burdens. As the district court observed, however, the savings depend upon distinguishing between homosexual and heterosexual employees, similarly situated, and such a distinction cannot survive rational basis review.
A Brewer spokesperson said the governor is now considering a further appeal and reiterated that lawmakers “eliminated domestic partner benefits across the board for both gay and straight couples in response to the state budget crisis.” During the challenge, however, “plaintiffs presented a study showing a cutoff of benefits to same-sex partners would achieve only minimal savings – no more than $1.8 million a year for fewer than 300 partners in a state with a $7.8 billion budget.” The state had offered no rebuttal.