Equal Benefits Ordinance for Domestic Partners is Upheld in Federal Court

S.D. Myers loses bid to toss landmark LGBT protection for conflicting with state law

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today rejected the final legal appeal challenging San Francisco’s Equal Benefits Ordinance, a 1996 amendment to the City’s Administrative Code that prohibits public contracting with businesses that fail to provide employee benefits for domestic partners equal to those they provide married couples. The 3-0 ruling found that City law does not conflict with state law allowing for registration of domestic partners, as alleged in a lawsuit originally filed by S.D. Myers Inc., a Tallmadge, Ohio-based electrical company whose refusal to abide by the City law on fundamentalist religious grounds prevented it from obtaining a maintenance contract on city-owned transformers. All of the company’s previous attempts to invalidate the ordinance since 1997 — based on claims that it ran afoul of federal interstate commerce laws and the state constitution — were similarly unsuccessful.

“San Francisco’s Equal Benefits Ordinance is a landmark law that also stands as abiding testimony to our long held civic values of equality, tolerance and diversity,” said City Attorney Dennis Herrera. “It has been a long legal battle against a highly motivated, well-funded legal foe, and enormous congratulations are due to Chief Deputy City Attorney Therese Stewart and former Deputy City Attorney Dennis Aftergut for their extraordinary skill, dedication and hard work. It’s important to recognize, too, the debt we owe to activists like Jeff Sheehy, Geoff Kors and our own City Attorney Investigator, Carol Stuart, whose leadership and vision in authoring the measure back in 1996 would make so enormous a difference for the cause of equality in municipal laws and corporate benefit packages nationwide.”

In 1997, San Francisco became the first jurisdiction in the country to require employers with city contracts to offer equal benefits to their employees’ domestic partners. Since then, five other localities have followed suit: Los Angeles; Seattle; Berkeley, Calif.; San Mateo County, Calif.; and Tumwater, Wash. All but one of the local laws apply to all spousal benefits offered by employers, including bereavement leave, family and medical leave, health insurance benefits, membership discounts and relocation benefits. San Mateo County’s ordinance, which went into effect July 1, 2001, excludes pension and retirement benefits. At the time of the law’s enactment in 1997, roughly 200 companies were estimated to have provided domestic partner benefits nationwide. Today, the number stands at nearly 6,000 companies, of which 4,000 — roughly two-thirds — do business with the City and County of San Francisco.

“This is the last nail in the coffin of the religious right’s challenge to San Francisco’s ground-breaking Equal Benefits Ordinance,” said Chief Deputy City Attorney Therese Stewart, who argued the City’s case before the federal appeals court in San Francisco last December. “San Francisco’s measure has had a huge ripple effect nationally by encouraging large corporations and health insurance companies to provide benefits for domestic partners.”