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Calif. court: Businesses must treat same-sex, married couples the same

SAN FRANCISCO (BP)–In a decision that broadens the rights of homosexual couples, the California Supreme Court ruled Aug. 1 that same-sex domestic partners must be treated the same as married couples by private businesses.

The 6-0 ruling dealt specifically with membership benefits in a country club, although it apparently will impact a long list of other businesses, such as health clubs and banks.

California has a domestic partnership law, which grants registered same-sex couples the state-sanctioned legal benefits of marriage.

The case began when a lesbian, B. Birgit Koebke, asked the Bernardo Heights County Club in San Diego, where she is a member, to extend to her domestic partner the benefits that married spouses enjoy, particularly unlimited complimentary play. Without the spousal benefit, her partner would be limited to six outings a year and would have to pay the greens fee, according to the court.

The country club refused, citing a desire to maintain a “family friendly organization.” Koebke sued, saying the club’s policy violated California’s civil rights law. The high court agreed.

“[A] business that extends benefits to spouses it denies to registered domestic partners engages in impermissible marital status discrimination,” Justice Carlos R. Moreno wrote for the court. “… [A] chief goal of the Domestic Partner Act is to equalize the status of registered domestic partners and married couples.”

The domestic partnership law was passed by the legislature and signed by former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis before he was recalled. It became law in January of this year.

Conservatives said the court’s ruling underscores the need for a constitutional marriage amendment. A lawsuit seeking “gay marriage” legalization is making its way through the system and eventually could end up before the California Supreme Court, perhaps within the next year. Two pro-family coalitions — ProtectMarriage.com and VoteYesMarriage.com — are seeking to place an amendment on the ballot in 2006.

“Marriage is a special and exclusive institution for a man and a woman. Private companies should not be forced to undermine or redefine marriage by the government or anyone else,” Randy Thomasson of the VoteYesMarriage.com group said in a statement. “It’s time for the people of California to stop the out-of-control courts from trampling marriage and trashing the deeply-felt standards of private businesses and organizations.”

But some legal experts said that in light of the court’s reasoning in its decision, it is not likely to legalize “gay marriage.” For instance, the court ruled that prior to the domestic partnership law, the country club might have had a legitimate reason not to extend the marital benefits to the lesbian couple. In addition, the court refused the plaintiffs’ request to declare the club’s pre-2005 policy discriminatory on the basis of marital status discrimination and sexual orientation.

“It does not bode well for same-sex marriage,” University of Santa Clara Law Professor Gerald Uelmen told the Los Angeles Times.

The couple was represented by the homosexual activist group Lambda Legal, which said it remained committed to legalizing “gay marriage” in the state.

“We won an important battle today, but we need to continue to fight the fight,” Lambda Legal’s Jon W. Davidson said in a statement.
For more information about the national debate over “gay marriage,” visit www.bpnews.net/samesexmarriage.

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