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Court Ruling Aids Domestic Partnerships

Times Staff Writer

Businesses that provide discounts, special services or other privileges to married couples must extend the same rights and benefits to same-sex couples registered as state domestic partners, the California Supreme Court decided 6-0 on Monday.

The ruling will affect a broad range of businesses, including banks and mortgage lenders, auto insurers and health clubs. Lenders will have to consider domestic partners’ joint income in making loans, and insurers will have to offer the same multiple-driver discounts they give married couples.

The decision adds to a growing body of legislation and court decisions that have put California ahead of most other states in extending rights to same-sex couples.

“This is a very significant step toward equality,” said Jon W. Davidson, an attorney with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund who argued the case. Randy Thomasson, an opponent of the state’s domestic partners law, responded to Monday’s ruling by calling on voters to “stop the out-of-control courts from trampling marriage and trashing the deeply felt standards of private businesses and organizations.”

The court ruled in favor of a lesbian couple who sued a country club in San Diego after it denied the member’s partner golfing privileges given to spouses. The couple said the club was violating a state civil rights law.

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“A business that extends benefits to spouses it denies to registered domestic partners engages in impermissible marital status discrimination,” the court ruled.

The decision directly affects how businesses treat the domestic partners of clients or customers. Employee benefits are covered by separate laws, which include protections for domestic partners.

The ruling applies only to business dealings that have occurred since the new domestic partners law took effect Jan. 1. About 27,000 couples are on the state’s domestic partner registry. Most are gay men and lesbians, although unmarried heterosexual couples with one partner at least 62 years old also can register.

Monday’s ruling did not address same-sex marriage, an issue that the court is expected to decide in a different case in several months. But the court’s reasoning in the country club decision could undercut the argument that a ban on gay marriage amounts to discrimination, said University of Santa Clara Law Professor Gerald Uelmen, an expert on the state high court.

“It does not bode well for same-sex marriage,” Uelmen said.

Although State Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer backed the couple in the country club case, he has argued in court against legalizing gay marriage, saying same-sex couples already have most of the rights of married couples under the domestic partners law.

Nevertheless, Davidson said the ruling contained language that will be helpful to same-sex marriage proponents. He noted, for example, that the court clearly recognized that same-sex couples constitute families.

The ruling came as petitions are being circulated for ballot initiatives that gay-rights activists say would gut the domestic partners law. The court’s affirmation of the law is likely to intensify that battle.

“It’s because of intolerant rulings like this that Californians are supporting [efforts] to pass a state constitutional amendment that will protect the freedom of private entities to decide their own policies on marriage between a man and a woman,” said Thomasson, one of the organizers of Voters’ Right to Protect Marriage Initiative.

B. Birgit Koebke, who sued the Bernardo Heights Country Club for refusing to give her partner golfing and other privileges extended to spouses, called Monday’s decision “a great victory for California families.”

“We are not second-class citizens,” said Koebke, 48, a sales executive. “We have every right to the same benefits that all married couples enjoy.”

The court said that the state’s anti-discrimination law, known as the Unruh Civil Rights Act, may give some unmarried couples who are not registered partners equal access to certain services “under some circumstances.” But businesses can lawfully draw distinctions between married and unmarried couples if they are based on legitimate business reasons and do not involve registered partners, the court said.

Koebke and her partner of 13 years, Kendall E. French, 43, said they have been registered as domestic partners since 2000.

According to the court, Koebke paid $18,000 in 1987 for a membership at the Bernardo Heights Country Club, which includes a golf course, a clubhouse and a dining room.

Members can play golf with their spouses and children on an unlimited basis without paying additional fees. Spouses of members also may inherit the membership without a transfer fee upon the member’s death.

Friends of unmarried members are supposed to pay guest tee fees, and their playing time is restricted.

Koebke said she asked the club to designate French her “significant other” in 1995. The club refused. She asked the club again in 1998 and 2000 to extend benefits to French, and the club again refused, she said. The club suggested French apply for her own membership.

Koebke contended that the club exempted the live-in girlfriends and boyfriends, and grandchildren, of heterosexual members from the extra fees, while denying the same benefits to same-sex couples.

The country club had argued that extending membership benefits to unrelated friends might lead to overuse of the facilities and discourage the friends from purchasing their own memberships. The club also argued that its marriage policy contributed to the creation of a “family-friendly environment.”

The court disagreed, noting that privileges for domestic partners would “not create the stampede on the fairway” the club envisioned. Creating a family-friendly environment might be a legitimate business interest, but “that policy is not served when a business discriminates against the domestic partner of one of its members” or excludes “families formed through domestic partnerships,” Justice Carlos R. Moreno wrote for the court.

Before the new domestic partners law took effect, “the country club’s policy was supported by legitimate business interests,” the court said.

The Legislature changed all that when it decided to “equalize” the status of registered partners and spouses, Moreno said. Although the state continues to have a public policy in favor of marriage, the practical reasons for favoring marriage are now embodied in the Domestic Partner Act, Moreno said.

“In creating domestic partners, the Legislature has also created a policy favoring such partnerships similar to the policy favoring marriage,” Moreno wrote.

The high court’s ruling returns the case to the trial court for further proceedings. John Shiner, lead lawyer for the Bernardo Heights Country Club, said the ruling “validates and vindicates the policies that the club had in place during the years of the litigation” prior to the new domestic partners law. He said the club’s board of directors will now decide whether to extend spousal benefits to domestic partners after reviewing the court decision.

“The club will follow the law,” Shiner said.

Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, in a partial dissent, said the decision should have protected domestic partners back to 2000, when the state’s first, but less sweeping, domestic partners law took effect.

She wrote: “Even under the law from 2000 to 2004, the member could have had only one registered domestic partner at a time and was restricted in how often he or she could change registered partners.”

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Times staff writers Molly Selvin and Lee Romney contributed to this report.


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