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Appeals court upholds same-sex benefits in Arizona

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By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) - A federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that Arizona must continue for now to provide health care benefits to same-sex partners of state government workers.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld a temporary block on a controversial 2009 state law that sought to strip health coverage for gay and lesbian domestic partners of Arizona employees.

In a 13-page opinion, the three-member appeals panel said such a law would go against the long-standing constitutional right to equal protection.

A New York-based legal advocacy group hailed the ruling as a major victory for same sex couples.

"Today's decision ... means Arizona's lesbian and gay state employees will not suddenly find themselves without vital family health coverage," said Tara Borelli, a Lambda Legal attorney who argued the case before the court.

The group represented seven of the nine state workers who filed suit against the law in November 2009, two months after Governor Jan Brewer signed the bill. The bill was part of drastic cuts made to balance the state's budget.

The state employees claimed in the suit that the law violated their due process and equal protection rights and won a temporary stay from a federal court until it could decide on the suit.

It was not until 2008 that same-sex partners were eligible for the same health coverage as their opposite sex partners in Arizona. Former Governor Janet Napolitano granted these individuals the benefits through an executive order.

Brewer spokesman Matt Benson said the appeals court opinion "flies in the face of logic and the law" and grants more benefits to same-sex partners than straight couples.

"In the governor's opinion, this is a step in the wrong direction," he said.

Benson said the governor is studying the ruling and has not yet made a decision on an appeal.

(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Jerry Norton)