(This story was published in 2005).
The California State Supreme Court gave a victory to gay and lesbian couples when it ruled Monday against a golf country club that had refused to give a lesbian couple the same membership benefits given to married heterosexual couples.
B. Birgit Koebke and Kendall E. French, a lesbian couple who have been domestic partners for 12 years, sued the Bernardo Heights Country Club of San Diego County. Koebke, who paid an $18,000 membership in 1987, wanted French to get the same treatment as spouses of members, but the club refused. Members’ spouses, children under 22 and grandchildren can pay golf at the club for free, but unmarried guests have to pay $40 to $75 a round and can play only six times a year.
The ruling revolved around the state’s domestic partnership law, which passed the state Legislature in 2003 and took effect Jan. 1, 2005, and grants same-sex couples (and heterosexual elderly couples) nearly the same responsibilities and benefits as married spouses, ranging from access to divorce court to liability for a partner's debts.
"The Legislature has made it abundantly clear than an important goal of the Domestic Partner Act is to create substantial legal equality between domestic partners and spouses," Associate Justice Carlos Moreno wrote for a five-judge majority. "We interpret this language to mean that there shall be no discrimination in the treatment of registered domestic partners and spouses."
The Supreme Court ruling is being broadly interpreted to mean that all California business must offer registered same-sex couples the same benefits they offer to married couples. Same-sex marriage is not allowed in the state.
"For registered domestic partners, it means when they walk into a business, they are entitled to be treated the same way as spouses are," said Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal Defense Fund, which argued the case.
In the country club case, the Supreme Court ruling sends it back to San Diego County Superior Court to determine whether Bernardo Height’s membership policy was applied in a discriminatory fashion.
That move upheld an earlier ruling by a San Diego appeals court, which said that there was some evidence that the club had extended benefits to heterosexual unmarried couples that were not given to the gay couple, the San Diego Union-Tribune said. The court gave an example of the club extending family benefits to the fiancée of a member prior to their marriage. The non-golfing female partner of a male club member was also extended privileges, the court said, while the two women were repeatedly denied in a case that goes back to 1998.
“We aren’t activists, we aren’t politically charged,” said Koebke, who pays $500 a month in membership fee. “We just wanted to play golf together and we just really felt we had every human right to do that.”
In its ruling the Supreme Court gave some insight into the mentality of the country club’s board of directors in denying benefits to the lesbian couple.
“There was significant evidence that BHCC’s directors were motivated by animus toward plaintiffs because of their sexual orientation, including evidence of BHCC’s inconsistent application of the spousal benefit policy to its unmarried heterosexual members while, at the same time, it repeatedly rebuffed plaintiffs’ efforts to modify the policy to include them,” the court said.
It cited one example where Koebke stated in a deposition that the Board’s denial of spousal benefits to French was motivated by its fear that if it did so “it would open the floodgates” to homosexuals and BHCC would become known as “gay friendly,” which a member of the board communicated to her was not “a desire or direction of the Club.”
Koebke’s sexual orientation became a subject of speculation and discussion among BHCC members, the court said in its 45-page opinion. One BHCC member, Judy Stillman, overheard another member say that perhaps the men in his group “should get [the plaintiffs] to put on a skit to show us how they do it with toys, and charge an admission price, to help pay for the lawsuit.”
John Shiner, the lawyer representing Bernardo Heights, said Monday, “The club will take whatever action is necessary to comply with the decision of the Supreme Court.” He would not elaborate on whether that means the club will start giving spousal privileges to the partners of gay or lesbian members, AP said.
The vote in the case was 5-1, with one justice concurring with some parts of the opinion and dissenting in others.