ACLU targets first responders



The Montana ACLU has argued for years that the state discriminates against gays. But even the nonprofit's legal director, Jon Ellingson, did a double take when he discovered to what extent same-sex partners of deceased police and fire department officers are treated differently.

"I was shocked," he says.

While preparing to amend a lawsuit that seeks domestic partnership rights for gay couples in committed relationships, Ellingson set to work identifying the state's most discriminatory statutes. He found one in particular that stands out—the law that governs how pensions for Montana's municipal law enforcement and fire department officers, along with members of the Highway Patrol, are distributed to surviving family members.

It works like this: If a police officer who's 45 years old and earned a maximum of $3,000 per month retires after 20 years of service, that officer would have saved $35,400 in his retirement account. If that officer were to die, his surviving spouse would receive a lifetime monthly payment of $1,500, despite the fact that the savings account would be drained in two years.

That scenario contrasts the pension paid to the surviving member of a same-sex couple, who only receives the monthly payment until the officer's retirement account runs dry.

"It seems to me to be a superb example of the inequity of our statutory structure," Ellingson says.

Aiming to mobilize support to change the existing law, Ellingson last week itemized his concerns in letters to Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir and city Fire Department Chief Jason Diehl.

Both chiefs are supportive of change, Ellingson says. Diehl and Muir passed the information along to their staffs, and Muir this week is presenting a copy of the ACLU letter to the Montana Association of Chiefs of Police at a conference in Billings. "He is definitely trying to make sure that we pass this information on to our members," says Capt. Chris Odlin, "so they can have the information to make a change if they see fit."

As for Diehl, he's paid into the firefighters retirement fund for more than two decades. When first presented with the ACLU letter, he was most concerned about leaving the pension fund intact for his family and those of his colleagues. He now believes that the financial impacts of changing the statute would be negligible and therefore sees modernizing the statute as "a no-brainer."

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