Wednesday, August 03, 2005 | A landmark court decision on gay rights Monday requiring businesses to treat same-sex domestic partners the same as they treat married couples may have sent tremors through the business world but in San Diego it has caused little more than a ripple.
The California Supreme Court ruling on a case brought by a lesbian couple from Rancho Bernardo thrust San Diego into the limelight but a sampling of businesses in San Diego on Tuesday found that many do not discriminate against registered domestic partners.
From gyms to golf clubs, medical insurance to YMCAs, San Diego businesses have been well ahead of the curve in securing equal treatment for registered domestic partners.
Private clubs are a good example. Dallas-based ClubCorp owns and operates a number of local clubs and resorts including the University Club in downtown San Diego and the Morgan Run Resort & Club in Rancho Santa Fe.
Patty Jerde, manager of corporate communication at ClubCorp, said the organization merely asks couples wanting to join as a family to sign an affidavit saying that they live together.
“They are stating that they are spouses,” she said, “whether it is as same-sex couples or not.”
It’s apparently not just big corporate-owned clubs that adhere to these rules. Bill Kellogg, president of the exclusive La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club, said the domestic partners issue is something he’s never had to deal with. However, Kellogg stressed that his membership committee is concerned with financial responsibility, rather than sexual preference.
“We don’t have any prohibitions on those grounds,” he said.
The YMCA sings the same song. Pattie Griffin, vice president of marketing communications for the YMCA in San Diego County, said the organization does not look at sexual orientation when it is signing up family memberships.
“A family membership is for two adults and all the children in the same household,” said Griffin. “As far as how a family is defined, it’s up to the family to define it for us.”
The local insurance industry also appears to have caught on quick to the rights of same-sex couples.
Nicole Mahrt, spokeswoman for the western office of the American Insurance Association, which represents liability and casualty insurers, said she believes insurers are already in compliance with discrimination laws. Indeed, Mahrt said some insurers have begun to court the gay community as a niche market, offering plans that are specifically catered towards registered domestic partners.
This is an issue that he says often comes up when a company is deciding the parameters of its healthcare coverage, and though Chee said he has seen a distinct trend towards inclusivity, he noted that there are still a substantial number of companies that exclude workers from health insurance coverage on the basis of sexual orientation.
Julie Greenberg, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and an expert on discrimination, said most San Diego businesses were probably already adhering to the current laws and regulations before the Koebke vs. Bernardo Heights Country Club came along.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” she said. “One, because of the general nature of California and, two, because lawyers should have been telling their clients ‘don’t do this.”
For several local businesses, it seems that message is filtering through. The role of Koebke in the unfolding legal process granting rights to same-sex couples may therefore be to clarify, crystallize or even finally set in stone the rights that were enshrined at the beginning of 2005. Whether there’s much sexual orientation discrimination left to stamp out in San Diego’s businesses, is another matter.
At point in the Koebke case was how businesses treat same-sex domestic partners compared to how they treat married couples. In a unanimous ruling, the justices said that the Unruh Civil Rights Act, a California statute that prohibits discrimination by business establishments, also protects registered domestic partners from discrimination by businesses.
Essentially, the court laid down a hard and fast rule: Same-sex partners must be treated the same as married couples by businesses. Thus, where a business offers certain benefits to married couples, it must offer the same benefits to same-sex couples. In the Koebke case, the plaintiffs were denied a family membership to a golf club, which carried with it a number of benefits including free rounds of golf, because they were a same-sex couple.
The ruling in the Koebke case clearly places the California Supreme Court’s seal of approval on the California Domestic Partnership Rights and Responsibilities Act of 2003, which came into effect on Jan. 1, 2005.
That statute states that single-sex partners in California “shall have the same rights, protections, and benefits, and shall be subject to the same responsibilities, obligations, and duties under law … as are granted to and imposed upon spouses.”
Greenberg said that the Koebke decision is “a message loud and clear to all other businesses that the California Supreme Court is not accepting any defense to any discriminatory activity that is post-January 2005 against registered domestic partners.”
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