Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said Thursday that an Oregon appellate court decision ordering that employment benefits be given to both married and same-sex couples is historic, and has great potential to advance a big array of lesbian and gay civil rights in the state.
"The court said that the state discriminates against gay people when it uses marital status to determine which workers are entitled to government- controlled protections and benefits," said Lambda Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn. "This ruling should help us stop anti-gay discrimination in other contexts -- from family law to the right to make medical decisions for a partner who is incapacitated," she said.
"We now have an important new tool to challenge the state any time its use of marital status puts lesbians and gay men at a disadvantage," she said.
On December 9, the Court of Appeals of the State of Oregon ruled in Tanner v. Oregon Health Sciences University that extending important employment benefits like health coverage only to married state employees is unfair to lesbian and gay workers who cannot legally marry and violates the Oregon Constitution's "equal privileges and immunities" clause.
The case was brought by Christine Tanner and two other lesbian employees of Oregon Health Sciences University and their domestic partners. Lambda, the nation's oldest and largest gay legal organization, submitted a friend-of-the- court brief on their behalf.
Jennifer C. Pizer, managing attorney of Lambda's Western Regional Office and co-author of the brief, said, "This is an unprecedented victory for gay workers and one step toward addressing the many inequities lesbian and gay families suffer. Oregon's is the first court in the nation to rule that this kind of discrimination is unconstitutional under its state constitution."
In its 29-page opinion, the court ruled that a state law barring employment discrimination on the basis of sex also prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The court also found that because lesbians and gay men are a socially recognized group that has been the subject of adverse stereotyping or prejudice, they are members of a "suspect class" and thus entitled to the powerful heightened scrutiny standard under Oregon law when bringing forward claims of discrimination.
"These findings transform Oregon's protections from anti-gay workplace discrimination into some of the strongest in the nation," Pizer said.
Dohrn added, "The Court has recognized the vital protections and benefits denied to lesbian and gay families simply because we still cannot have the legal recognition that non-gay couples automatically get with the two words, 'I do.'"
Lambda's amicus brief was also co-authored by Lynn Nakamoto, an attorney with the Portland firm Markowitz, Herbold, Glade & Mehlhaf and a cooperating attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon.
(Tanner v. Oregon Health Sciences University, No. CA A94458)