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Court won’t reconsider ruling on state workers’ domestic partner benefits

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A federal appeals court Tuesday refused to reconsider its September ruling that blocked an Arizona ban on benefits for domestic partners of state employees.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals turned down the state’s request to rehear a three-judge panel’s decision that Arizona’s law discriminated against homosexual state workers, and was not just an attempt to save money as the state argued.

A spokesman said Tuesday that Gov. Jan Brewer was weighing her options on an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Really, the issue isn’t about whether the state should provide health benefits to the same-sex couples,” said Matthew Benson, the spokesman. “It is about whether the state has strict control over its finances or whether that control will be handed over to the court.”

But Tara Borelli, an attorney at gay-rights organization Lambda Legal, said budgetary concerns are not an excuse for discrimination. She praised the court’s decision, which she said upheld long-standing principles of equal access.

“Equality and fairness has prevailed for these state employees,” said Borelli, who argued the original case. “You can’t discriminate simply because it costs less.”

But in a strongly worded dissent, Circuit Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain said the plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate an equal-protection violation because they did not prove the state had discriminatory motives.

He blasted the court’s “combustive conclusion” and predicted it would “spur challenges to other state constitutional and statutory provisions that protect … traditional marriage.”

“The panel opinion … hobbles the efforts of states and their citizens to protect traditional marriage by condemning, as a matter of federal constitutional law, such efforts as motivated by unbridled, irrational hatred,” O’Scannlain wrote. “It undermines the decision of Arizona’s legislature to respond rationally to a historic budget crisis.”

Benson agreed, saying the state cut benefits for domestic partners – both gay and straight – in response to the fiscal crisis. He said the cuts were not discriminatory.

“If there is any inequity here, it is that created by the court,” he said.

Arizona approved benefits for domestic partners of unmarried state employees beginning in 2008. Later that year, a voter-approved amendment to the Arizona Constitution defined marriage as being “between one man and one woman,” and in 2009 state lawmakers redefined “dependents” as “spouses.”

That prompted claims of discrimination against same-sex couples. Carrie Sperling, one of those who sued, said Tuesday that the majority opinion reaffirms equal rights for gay and lesbian couples.

“I hope the state of Arizona sees the writing on the wall and decides not to pursue this any further,” said Sperling, who works at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law. “They’re saying when the budgets are tight it’s OK to discriminate and I completely disagree.

“I don’t think most Americans agree with that,” she said.