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Firms Not Fazed by Same-Sex Decision

Times Staff Writer

Monday’s state Supreme Court ruling broadening the rights of registered domestic partners in California will have little effect on most businesses, experts said Tuesday.

The unanimous decision held that businesses providing special services, discounts or other privileges to married couples must do the same for same-sex couples registered with the state as domestic partners.

On Monday, Jon Davidson, an attorney with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund who argued the case, said he expected the ruling to force mortgage lenders, insurers and fitness clubs to equalize their treatment of gay and married couples.

But many of those businesses said they had eliminated policies favoring married couples, either years ago in response to changing values, or because of two state laws that took effect Jan. 1 mandating equal treatment for the partners of gay clients or customers.

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The court ruled in favor of a lesbian couple who sued a San Diego country club after it denied the member’s partner golfing privileges routinely given to spouses. The justices agreed that the club was violating a state civil rights law by engaging in “impermissible marital status discrimination.”

In the mortgage business, however, little will change, said Dustin Hobbs, communications director for the California Mortgage Bankers Assn. The impetus was AB 205, which extended to registered domestic partners most of the rights and responsibilities of married spouses.

Previously, some lenders approved home or auto loans only if the gay borrower’s individual assets were sufficient to qualify for credit rather than evaluating the couple’s assets jointly.

The new law, Hobbs said, prompted the association to advise its 300 member lenders that it was in their “best interests to regard registered domestic partners the same as heterosexual spouses,” including by “inquiring about the nature of the relationship at the loan origination stage.”

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Monday’s court decision “doesn’t affect us nearly as much as one might think,” he said.

The California Department of Insurance said it had received few complaints about discriminatory underwriting practices in recent months, largely because of a second law in effect this year.

That law, AB 2208, bars insurers from treating domestic partners differently from married couples. It applies to all new and existing policies, including auto, homeowner and health insurance.

As a result, said department spokesman Norman Williams, the department is not likely to issue new regulations or guidelines in the wake of the court decision.

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Samuel Sorich agrees. Sorich heads the Assn. of California Insurance Companies, representing about 300 companies that write 40% of the property casualty premiums in the state.

“The law made it very clear that policies had to be equal,” Sorich said. “We’ve been treating registered domestic partners on an equal basis since the beginning of the year, and many of our member companies [did so] before that.”

Many health and fitness clubs also said they had long extended memberships to gay couples.

“Since 2003, we have offered a ‘friends and family’ discount on membership,” said Matt Messinger, a spokesman for Bally Total Fitness, which has about 1 million members in Southern California.

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