Gay Partners Can Keep Arizona Health Benefits

     (CN) - Arizona cannot deny health care benefits to the same-sex partners of state employees, the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday, finding that the state's money-saving argument rang hollow.
     The federal appeals court in San Francisco upheld an injunction that bars enforcement of a 2009 law that eliminated health care coverage for domestic partners of Arizona employees. A year earlier, the state passed a voter-approved constitutional amendment that defined marriage as between one man and one woman.
     A group of nine gay and lesbian state employees sued Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer and other officials in Phoenix, alleging violations of their rights to equal protection and due process.
     The state argued that it had canceled the benefits to save money, but it failed to show how much the benefits actually cost, according to the ruling.
     U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick enjoined the law, ruling that it was likely unconstitutional and that the plaintiffs were apt to suffer great harm if it went into effect.
     The 9th Circuit affirmed unanimously, finding that the state's justification was doomed to fail even if the state explained its cost-saving theory.
     "Of particular significance to the district court was the fact that while the plaintiffs produced expert analysis on the impact of the law on the state's expenditures and found it minimal, the court was not provided any evidence of the actual amount of benefits the state paid for same sex partners," Judge Mary Schroeder wrote for the court's three-judge panel. "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."
     The state admitted that 698 domestic partners had participated in its health plan in 2008-09, the first year it was available to them, and that 893 domestic partners had participated in 2009-10, the benefit's final year. But Arizona provided "no information ... as to the number of same-sex domestic partners participating in the state health plan, nor the total claims of same-sex domestic partners," according to the ruling.
     Arizona had also argued on appeal that the trial court improperly recognized a constitutional right to health care. But the 9th Circuit said the argument, and many other of the state's claims, relied on a misunderstanding of the District Court's order.
     "The court held that the withholding of benefits for same-sex couples was a denial of equal protection," Schroeder wrote. "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."