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    News in Depth

    CA Supreme Court Says State Law Requires CA Businesses To Grant Registered Domestic Partners Same Benefits As Married Couples; We Post Decision

    (August 2, 2005) -- The CA Supreme Court has ruled that a state law requires CA businesses must grant registered domestic partners the same benefits they give married couples.

    "Domestic partners registered under the California Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act of 2003 (the Domestic Partner Act), the current version of the domestic partnership law, are the equivalent of spouses for the purposes of the [CA] Unruh [Civil Rights] Act and a business that extends benefits to spouses it denies to registered domestic partners engages in impermissible marital status discrimination," the CA Supreme Court ruled in a decision. has posted the full text of the Court's ruling below.

    The case arose when a lesbian couple who are registered domestic partners sued a San Diego area country club to which one of them belongs, alleging the club’s refusal to extend them certain benefits it extends to married club members constituted marital status discrimination under CA's Unruh Civil Rights Act.

    The country club prevailed below on summary judgment (trial court) which was affirmed by a CA Court of Appeal...but the CA Supreme Court granted review and reversed. Citing the state legislature's action in enacting CA's Domestic Partner Act, the CA Supreme Court wrote:

    The purpose of the Domestic Partner Act is set forth in uncodified portions of section 297.5, in which the Legislature declares: "This act is intended to help California move closer to fulfilling the promises of inalienable rights, liberty, and equality contained in Sections 1 and 7 of Article 1 of the California Constitution by providing all caring and committed couples, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation, the opportunity to obtain essential rights, protections, and benefits and to assume corresponding responsibilities, obligations, and duties and to further the state’s interests in promoting stable and lasting family relationships, and protecting Californians from the economic and social consequences of abandonment, separation, the death of loved ones, and other life crises." (Stats. 203, ch. 421, § 1, subd. (a).) The Legislature has found "that despite longstanding social and economic discrimination, many lesbian, gay, and bisexual Californians have formed lasting, committed, and caring relationships with persons of the same sex," and that "[e]xpanding the rights and creating responsibilities of registered domestic partners would further California’s interests in promoting family relationships and protecting family members during life crises, and would reduce discrimination on the bases of sex and sexual orientation in a manner consistent with the requirements of the California Constitution." (Stats. 2003, ch. 421, § 1, subd. (b).)

    Section 15 of the Domestic Partner Act, furthermore, requires that the act be construed liberally in order to secure to eligible couples who register as domestic partners the full range of legal rights, protections and benefits, as well as all of the responsibilities, obligations, and duties to each other, to their children, to third parties and to the state, as the laws of California extend to and impose upon spouses." (Stats. 2003, ch. 421, § 15.)

    Section 297.5 effectuates the legislative intent by using the broadest terms possible to grant to, and impose upon, registered domestic partners the same rights and responsibilities as spouses in specified areas of laws whether they are current, former or surviving domestic partners...

    With respect to discrimination, subdivision (f) provides: "Registered domestic partners shall have the same rights regarding nondiscrimination as those provided to spouses." (§ 297.5, subd. (f).) Moreover, with one exception pertaining to eligibility for long-term care plans, subdivision (h) prohibits any public agency in California from discriminating against "any person or couple on the ground that the person is a registered domestic partner rather than a spouse or that the couple [consists of] registered domestic partners rather than spouses." (§ 297.5, subd. (h).)

    It is clear from both the language of section 297.5 and the Legislature’s explicit statements of intent that a chief goal of the Domestic Partner Act is to equalize the status of registered domestic partners and married couples. It is in light of this intent that we must determine whether the Unruh Act precludes [the country club] from granting married couples benefits it denies to persons registered as domestic partners under the Domestic Partner Act. We conclude that the Unruh Act does.

    As to the country club's arguments:

    [W]e find unpersuasive the various business interests [country club's claims are served by its policy of denying family membership benefits to any but married couples. [It] claims that extending that benefit to "members’ friends" might lead to overuse of its facilities, create a disincentive for such friends to apply for membership and would discourage its "legitimate goal of creating a family-friendly environment by welcoming the immediate family of married members." [One of the plaintiffs] however, is not simply [the other's] friend, but her registered domestic partner, with rights and responsibilities similar to that of a spouse. Extending the spousal benefit to her would not create the stampede on the fairway that [the country club] appears to envision.

    The [country club] also argues that denying...the spousal benefit contributes to the creation of a "family-friendly environment." While creating a family-friendly environment may be a legitimate business interest, that policy is not served when a business discriminates against the domestic partner of one of its members. Rather, by so doing, the business violates the policy favoring domestic partnerships which, like the policy favoring marriage, seeks to promote and protect families as well as reduce discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation. Accordingly, we conclude that, while promoting a "family-friendly environment" may be a legitimate business interest, that interest is not furthered by excluding families formed through domestic partnership.

    And regarding consequences that might flow from allowing the plaintiffs' claim to proceed, the Court concluded, "[T]he consequence of interpreting the Unruh Act to prohibit discrimination against domestic partners would have the positive effect of effectuating the Legislature’s intent expressed in the Domestic Partner Act to create substantial legal equality between registered domestic partners and spouses."

    The Court confined its holding to cases of registered domestic partners...and drew a distinction regarding other unmarried couples and individuals.

    "While the [Unruh] Act may also protect the rights of other unmarried couples and unmarried individuals to equal access to public accommodations under some circumstances, distinctions drawn by businesses between married couples and such unmarried couples and individuals that are supported by legitimate business reasons do not constitute impermissible marital status discrimination under the Act."

    The opinion, by Justice Moreno was joined by Chief Justice George and Justices Kennard, Baxter and Chin; Justice Werdegar filed an opinion concurring but dissenting in part.

    Supporting the plaintiffs/appellants in the CA Supreme Court were the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and as amici curiae [Friends of the Court] the American Civil Liberties Union (No. Cal, So. Cal, SD/Imperial Counties), American Civil Liberties Union Foundation Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, the Anti-Defamation League, Equality California, Tom Homann Law Association, Women’s Sports Foundation, CA Women’s Law Center and National Center for Lesbian Rights.

    CA Attorney General Bill Lockyer -- whose office has argued against SF's efforts to allow same-sex marriages -- also supported the plaintiffs/appellants.

    The country club was represented by Morrison & Foerster.

    To view the Court's ruling in full, click here (pdf file).

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