N.H. Court Backs Gay Benefits for State Employees

May 7, 2006

Vivian Knezevich wants to be home with three-year-old Christopher full-time but she’s had to take a job for the health insurance.

If her partner were a man, they could get married and she’d be covered under her husband’s policy. But her partner of 14 years is a woman.

Faced with this dilemma, Knezevich’s partner, Patricia Bedford, challenged the state’s denial of family benefits to her as a state employee.

She and another lesbian couple took the state to court and won a ruling last week in Merrimack County Superior Court.

The state bars gays and lesbians from marrying, so requiring its employees to be married to get family benefits is discriminatory, Judge Kathleen McGuire ruled.

“The state’s attempt to couch the issue as one wherein all unmarried individuals are impacted equally, avoids … reality,” McGuire wrote in the ruling.

Attorney General Kelly Ayotte has said she will appeal.

Lawyer Karen Loewy of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders of Boston said her clients won’t be the only ones to benefit if the state Supreme Court upholds McGuire’s ruling.

“When the state is using marriage as a basis for access to benefits, that’s discriminatory and not only for my clients,” she said.

The women involved argue this is an issue of equal pay for equal work — married employees get financial benefits for their families that gay and lesbian couples are denied.

When Christopher, who is Bedford’s biological son, was born, they decided Knezevich would stay home with him. She took an evening job so she could be with him during the day. Bedford watches him at night.

“We haven’t had supper together for three years,” Bedford said.

Anne Breen, the other party in the lawsuit, said she first approached the state more than three years ago about getting her son, Matthew, covered under her insurance after her partner, who is the boy’s biological mother, changed jobs and was unable to keep him on her policy.

The issue of discriminatory treatment had come up before when Matthew, 10, was born. Suffering from respiratory distress, he was flown to a hospital in Boston and Breen and her partner, Kathleen Doyle, needed to be with him.

“I had leave, but Anne didn’t. She had to take vacation time,” Doyle said.

Neither couple expects immediate relief. Loewy said the courts are unlikely to require that benefits be extended to the families of gays and lesbians before the Supreme Court rules.

Both women initially took their cases to the state’s Human Rights Commission and when that failed, to court.

Breen said it has not been easy to have her 28-year partnership repeatedly rejected as something apart from marriage by the commission. She solved the problem of getting Matthew covered on her insurance by being named his guardian, but said it’s not the same. If anything happens to Matthew, she’d still not qualify for family leave, she noted.

Both women work for the New Hampshire State Technical College System, Breen as director of security and Bedford as director of student services.

Gov. John Lynch believes the state should extend benefits to gay and lesbian families, but understands Ayotte’s decision to appeal the legal issues, Lynch spokeswoman Pamela Walsh said.

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