Carrie Sperling and Sue Shapcott moved here from Texas in 2007 knowing that Arizona wouldn’t recognize their same-sex marriage, but at least they would qualify for domestic partner benefits available to state employees because of Sperling’s job with Arizona State University.
Then, in 2009, a budget-cutting measure signed by Gov. Jan Brewer narrowed coverage to employees’ spouses and dependent children – effectively barring same-sex couples.
“It was some kind of safety net to come to a state where we would receive domestic partner benefits,” Shapcott said. “To give it and then take it away just makes the whole thing twice as bad.”
Sperling joined nine other plaintiffs from around the state challenging the law in Collins v. Brewer, which alleges that the change unjustly denies equal compensation for members of same-sex couples performing the same jobs as co-workers.
In July 2010, U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick approved a preliminary injunction barring the law from taking effect. But state attorneys appealed that decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which will hear arguments from both sides Monday.
The injunction allows same-sex couples to retain their benefits in the meantime, making Arizona one of 17 that provide same-sex benefits either through domestic partnership or recognized marriages.
Sperling, who works as a visiting clinical associate professor of law at ASU, said she just wants the freedom to plan for the future.
“I don’t think people think about how important that is, and how you can’t really plan your life if you don’t have the security of your health,” she said.
Tara Borrelli, an attorney arguing the case for the couples and gay-rights organization Lambda Legal, said the case is the first to address same-sex benefits in federal court, but past state-court cases in Oregon, Alaska and Montana have upheld the right to equal access.
“There’s nothing new or novel about the rules the court is being asked to apply in this situation,” she said. “This case is really a case … on a really simple principle: the principle of equal pay for equal work.”
Unlike heterosexual couples, the law would deprive gay and lesbian employees of any way to receive domestic partner benefits because Arizona prohibits same-sex marriage, Borrelli said.
“States can’t achieve cost savings or administrative savings on the backs of vulnerable minority groups,” she said. “It would save money to pay women half the wages. It would save money to cut family coverage off for Jewish employees, but equal protection doesn’t allow that to happen either.”
Calls to the Arizona Office of the Attorney General and Office of the Governor weren’t returned by late Thursday afternoon.
Pending review at the Ninth Circuit Court, Sedwick will allow the case to proceed on claims of discrimination, but his ruling found that removing partner benefits didn’t interfere with the fundamental right to form and maintain intimate family relationships.
Sperling and Shapcott disagree.
“If Sue has to move back to Dallas so she can get a job that has benefits, I think that would affect our relationship,” Sperling said. “It can wreck families. That’s one of the reasons we give families insurance benefits as a package.”
Shapcott said politicians may claim they uphold family values, but this latest law has only disrupted her family.
“They want to promote family values – that’s part of their argument,” Shapcott said “[But] that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to have a family where we take care of each other.”