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Wednesday, August 23, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Straight woman's civil rights complaint brings complex questions

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA – One of the first tests for Washington state's new gay civil rights law has an intriguing twist: The complaint was filed by a heterosexual woman.

The state's discrimination watchdogs are investigating the case, which claims unmarried straight people should get the same domestic partner benefits as their gay and lesbian co-workers.

But officials are treading carefully, Human Rights Commission Director Marc Brenman said, because upholding the claim could set a sweeping new precedent for Washington businesses.

"We have to proceed very, very cautiously because we could be creating new policy for employers and other entities in the state," Brenman said Tuesday.

The complaint, filed last week, is one of four that have spawned full-fledged investigations under the sexual orientation section of Washington's antidiscrimination law.

It was signed by Sandi Scott-Moore, a Redmond-based employee of manufacturer Honeywell International. Scott-Moore claims health insurance coverage for her male partner was denied because the unmarried couple is not of the same gender.

Scott-Moore did not return phone messages seeking comment about the complaint, which The Associated Press obtained through a state open records request.

Honeywell spokesman Robert Ferris said the company does provide health benefits for the partners of its gay and lesbian employees and has a zero-tolerance stand on discrimination. But the company disagrees with Scott-Moore, he said in a statement.

"We believe the claim filed with the Washington State Human Rights Commission is without merit and plan to vigorously defend our position," Ferris wrote.

The state law at issue was expanded earlier this year, when state lawmakers added sexual orientation to an existing law that prohibits discrimination in housing, employment, lending and insurance. It went into effect in July.

The measure was aimed squarely at protecting Washington's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents. But its language is broader, banning any discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Joseph Fuiten, chairman of the conservative Faith and Freedom Network, said opponents of the gay rights measure predicted scenarios such as the Honeywell-related complaint.

"(Gays and lesbians) basically said, 'Treat us fair, treat us the same as everybody else,"' Fuiten said. "I don't know how you're going to get around treating heterosexuals the same."

Brenman said the commission has been deliberate with the Honeywell complaint, including outreach to state pension and insurance regulators and planned meetings with private businesses to discuss the policy implications.

"In order to finish the investigation, we're going to have to figure out what the policy is," Brenman said. He added: "There's a big controversy about this, and we're going to have to work through it."

Jennifer Pizer, a lawyer for the gay-rights firm Lambda Legal, said similar cases have been raised elsewhere without much success. But the group generally supports efforts that are aimed at ending discrimination, she said.

"It's marital status discrimination. You're telling people, in essence, they will be paid less" because they can't get the same benefits, Pizer said.

The three other complaints being investigated under the law, according to records provided by the commission:

—Harborview Medical Center security guard Tyler Joseph Miller, who said he was harassed on the job because he is openly gay. A Harborview spokeswoman declined to discuss personnel issues but said the hospital thoroughly investigates discrimination claims.

—Van Ethan Levy, who said he quit a job at Olympia's Best Buy store because of harassment over his female-to-male transgender status. A spokeswoman for the retailer declined specific comment but said the company does not tolerate discrimination.

—An unfair housing allegation from G. Jane Spencer-Watkins, who said she was harassed and evicted from a Gig Harbor RV park because she is transgender. A manager at the park declined comment, and a message left for a property manager was not immediately returned.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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