A divided Montana Supreme Court declared Thursday that the state constitution's guarantee of equal protection extended to gays, and that the state university system must offer same-sex couples the same health benefits available to heterosexual ones.
In a 4-3 decision, the justices struck down the university's policy of denying benefits to employees' gay partners.
The high court said the policy violated the Montana Constitution's guarantee of equal protection because unmarried heterosexual partners could get the benefit by signing a common-law marriage affidavit, while unmarried gay partners could not.
The ruling, which reversed a 2002 lower court decision, did not address the issue of gay marriage, which is barred under the Montana Constitution.
The case began after the University of Montana refused to let two employees in Missoula buy health insurance for their lesbian partners, who were not university employees. Carol Snetsinger and Carla Grayson and their partners sued, joined by the gay rights group PRIDE.
Leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature sided with the university system.
The high court said it had found no justification for treating unmarried same-sex couples differently from married ones.
"These two groups, although similarly situated in all respects other than sexual orientation, are not treated equally and fairly," it said.
In a dissent, Justice Jim Rice said the court had radically altered common-law marriage in Montana, and reached "the dew point of duplicity" in contending it did not do so.