State says no to benefits 

The fight for same sex benefits in Big Sky Country is heating up as the Montana Department of Justice (DOJ) argues that constitutional mandates prohibit the state from granting partnership benefits to gay couples.

"It's very important to understand that there's a constitutional obligation for the DOJ to defend any challenges to our state law," says agency spokesman Kevin O' Brien.

Because of that obligation, the DOJ recently asked Montana's First Judicial Court in Helena to dismiss a lawsuit filed in July by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is arguing that denying partnership benefits to homosexual couples is unconstitutional.

Specifically, the ACLU says denying gay couples myriad benefits associated with marriage—including tax breaks, the right to make health care decisions for partners, and access to medical insurance benefits and inheritance rights—amounts to sanctioned discrimination, which goes against constitutional protections ensuring privacy, dignity and equal protection under the law.

The ACLU is asking Helena's First District Court to remedy the alleged inequity by ordering the state to create a legal status for same sex couples that is separate but equal to marriage.

In response, the DOJ asserts same sex couples already have tools at their disposal to remedy perceived legal obstacles.

"Plaintiffs seek no more freedom from government in the pursuit of life's basic necessities than they already possess," the DOJ brief states. "Nor...is there any fundamental right to the array of spousal benefits plaintiffs would have this court extend to them."

Those statements don't sit well with ACLU Legal Director Betsy Griffing, who points to plaintiffs Jan Donaldson, 67, and Mary Ann Guggenheim, 75, of Helena, as examples of how the legal system is flawed. The couple has been together for 27 years, and bring documents with them just about wherever they go attesting to the fact that each has a say in the other's health care decisions.

"Those are the kind of procedures that are required by our clients," Griffing says.

The ACLU will file a response to the state's motion to dismiss by Dec. 10. Judge Jeffrey Sherlock will take up the debate at the end of January.

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