Philly's Extension of Benefits to Same-Sex Couples Allowed

December 8, 2004 ( - The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has upheld a Philadelphia ordinance that requires certain employers to extend employee benefits to same-sex couples who register with the city as "life partners", reversing a lower court's rejection of the rule's validity.

>The court overturned a ruling two years ago by a Commonwealth Court that said the city had overstepped its bounds with the 1998 decree. The Commonwealth Court had ruled that the ordinance conflicted with a state law defining marriage as a union between people of opposite sexes. It had said the ordinance amounted to an amendment to the law, which only the state government was legally allowed to do.

>In writing for the state Supreme Court, Justice Russell Nigro asserted that “while we acknowledge certain facial similarities between marriage and life partnership, we simply do not agree that they are sufficient to establish that the city has legislated in the area of marriage here.” The Court voted 6-0, with one abstention.

>The ordinance in question was passed by Philadelphia’s city council in 1998, and was designed to extend certain benefits to same sex couples. The ordinance – as two bills – prohibits discrimination against life partners and requires employers whose benefit plans were not covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) to extend the same benefits to life partners as are given to other employee dependants. The bills also amend the city’s real estate transfer taxes provision to allow for property transfer between life partners.

>The case against the ordinance was brought by a taxpayer group who asserted that the law attempted to preempt state law. A state trial court dismissed the suit, but upon appeal the Commonwealth Court reversed the lower court’s decision.

The City’s victory should not be viewed as total however, since the state Supreme Court disallowed parts of the ordinance that prohibit discrimination against couples who registered as life partners. In his ruling, Nigro explained that the city had attempted to extend its jurisdiction too far, since it allowed people from outside the city to register as life partners.

A blow was also struck against the alteration of the real estate transfer tax, with the court ruling that the city hadn’t adequately justified giving a tax break to some same-sex couples but not others in long-term non-marital relationships.

The case, Devlin v. City of Philadelphia, is available  here .