Appeals court upholds domestic partner ordinance

By David Kravets Associated Press Writer
Monday June 18, 2001

City contractors must offer health, other benefits to unmarried partners 


SAN FRANCISCO – A federal appeals panel has upheld a San Francisco ordinance, similar to ones in Los Angeles and Seattle, that demands city contractors offer health and other benefits to domestic partners of unmarried workers. 

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday struck down an Ohio contractor’s challenge to San Francisco’s 1997 law, the nation’s first, requiring that contractors doing business with the city offer the same benefits to unmarried employees’ domestic partners as they do to married employees. 

“This is a tremendous triumph for our equal benefits law,” said City Attorney Louise H. Renne. “San Francisco won’t do business with companies that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.” 

The decision came as many of the nation’s biggest companies are offering such benefits. In 1993, seven Fortune 500 companies had such benefits — compared to 127 today, according to the gay rights group, Human Rights Campaign. 

Thursday’s case arose after electronics firm S.D. Myers of Tallmadge, Ohio, was disqualified from a San Francisco project. Although it was the lowest bidder, it did not afford the same health benefits to its domestic partner employees as it did to married ones. 

The firm’s lawyers, funded by televangelist Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, argued that only Congress can adopt an ordinance that impacts interstate commerce. 

But the appellate panel said the law was valid because it treated California and out-of-state companies equally. 

“The ordinance contains no language explicitly or implicitly targeting either out-of-state entities or entities engaged in interstate commerce,” Judge J. Clifford Wallace wrote. “Rather, the ordinance applies to all contractors with the city without any reference to the type or extent of a contractor’s commercial operations.” 

Kevin H. Theriot, a lawyer for Robertson’s group, said he may ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case or demand the appeals court reconsider its decision. 

“We don’t think organizations have to give domestic partner benefits if they don’t want to,” Theriot said. 

After a federal judge sided with San Francisco in 1999, Los Angeles and Seattle adopted similar ordinances. New York City and Atlanta are considering such laws and Florida’s Broward County gives preference to companies offering those benefits. 

Kim Mills, Human Rights Campaign’s education director, said the decision should spur some other municipalities to adopt rules similar to San Francisco’s. 

“It will certainly have an impact on cities contemplating this kind of legislation,” Mills said. 

The Ohio engineering firm was not the only company to challenge San Francisco’s ordinance. 

The city’s ordinance affected the 28 airline carriers at San Francisco International Airport, who lease land from the city, and an untold number of contractors that perform a hodgepodge of work for the city. 

Last year, a federal judge sided largely against a suit brought by the airline industry that challenged San Francisco’s law. U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that the airlines must provide the same fare discounts, family leave and bereavement leave to domestic partners as to married couples working in San Francisco. 

The judge excluded health and pension benefits, saying the federal government has jurisdiction for the airline industry. Following the ruling, several airlines began offering the same benefits to domestic partners as they do to married couples. 

The airlines’ case, however, is pending before the appeals court. 

The case decided Thursday is S.D. Myers Inc. v. San Francisco, 99-16397.