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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 19, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 29
Battle over benefits in Montana - ACLU sues for equal rights for state's same-sex couples
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Battle over benefits in Montana - ACLU sues for equal rights for state's same-sex couples

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

The ACLU of Montana filed suit July 15 on behalf of seven same-sex couples seeking the same benefits married opposite-sex couples receive.

Plaintiffs said they were not seeking the right to marry, which is denied them by an amendment to the Montana state constitution passed in 2004. However, they charge that denying same-sex couples the same benefits that committed opposite-sex couples get is a violation of their equal-protection rights.

A similar suit by the same plaintiffs was dismissed by the Montana Supreme Court last December, on grounds that it did not specify which state laws were alleged to be discriminatory.

In the amended July 15 filing, plaintiffs name several statutes, including laws they say prevent same-sex couples from receiving financial benefits for police officers and their spouses, and from designating their partners as beneficiaries for workers' compensation.

Other laws cited in the suit exclude same-sex couples from financial protections for surviving spouses, authority over end-of-life decisions, financial protections due to illness or disability, and protections from the dissolution of their relationships.

'EGREGIOUS' INEQUITIES
'We're challenging statutes that offer some of the most egregious examples of how state laws do not give equal protection to same-sex couples and violate the Montana Constitution,' said ACLU of Montana Legal Director Jon Ellingson.

'Two of our plaintiffs, Peggy Ash and Kelly Hurston of Belgrade, are prime examples of how statutory discrimination in Montana can cost same-sex couples financially and in terms of peace of mind.'

Ash, a Bozeman police officer, contributes monthly payments to her retirement pension account, but should she die before her partner, Hurston will not be entitled to collect survivor benefits, as she would if she and Ash were married.

'Every other married officer that's in this position and has worked for this time and paid into the system doesn't have to worry about money evaporating if they retire and something happens to them,' Ash said.

'I go out and risk my health and my life every day. I'm not asking for anything special or different. I'm just asking for the same thing - to be able to take care of Kelly.'

State prosecutors have argued spousal benefits are limited by definition to married couples.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision last month striking down Section 3 of DOMA was not cited in the new filing, although ACLU officials previously said much of the reasoning used in that case could be applied in the Montana suit.

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