San Francisco’s Pioneering Domestic Partner Benefits Law Upheld By Federal Appeal Court

A decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding

San Francisco’s equal benefits law will have far-reaching effects and is a

positive sign for cities considering similar ordinances.

“The San Francisco law has been a model for other cities that are committed

to workplace equality for their lesbian and gay citizens,” said Kim I.

Mills, HRC’s education director who oversees HRC WorkNet, the organization’s

workplace project. “This decision is good news for lesbian and gay workers,

millions of whom are already benefiting from the spread of domestic partner


The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Thursday rejected

arguments by S.D. Myers Inc., an Ohio electrical company, that the law was

unconstitutional because it interfered with interstate commerce. The court

said any burden on interstate commerce “does not clearly outweigh the city’s

legitimate interest in applying the ordinance to those with whom it


The law, which took effect in 1997, requires companies with city contracts

or leases to provide the same benefits to unmarried employees and their

partners as they do to married couples. It was the first of its kind in the

nation and has had a dramatic impact on the proliferation of domestic

partner benefits.

“The San Francisco law created a cascade effect through major market

sectors, starting with commercial airlines,” said Mills, whose 1999 report,

“The State of the Workplace for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered

Workers,” documented the law’s initial impact. “Other sectors that quickly

followed were banking and oil and gas.” Some 76 percent of all employers

known to be offering DP benefits in 1999 could be attributed to the

enactment of the San Francisco law, Mills added. Currently, more than 3,700

U.S. employers offer domestic partner benefits, according to HRC WorkNet,

The electrical company, S.D. Myers Inc., sued after it lost a contract to do

maintenance on city-owned transformers because it refused on religious

grounds to promise to abide by the law. The company was represented by the

American Center for Law and Justice, the legal arm of Pat Robertson’s

Christian Coalition.

The appeals court has not yet ruled on a separate case in which the airline

industry, represented by the Air Transport Association, raised different

arguments to challenge the law.

Following San Francisco, several other cities and localities passed similar

laws, including Seattle, Los Angeles, Berkeley, Calif., and San Mateo

County, Calif. Broward County, Fla., passed a law giving first preference to

contractors that offer equal benefits.

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