PHOENIX — Partners of gay state and university employees will not lose their health care and other benefits, the U.S. Supreme Court established in a ruling this morning.

It refused to overturn a federal appellate court ruling which said it was illegal for Gov. Jan Brewer and the state Legislature in 2009 to take away the benefits that had been granted by the Janet Napolitano administration. The justices gave no reason for their decision.

But the order follows by one day two significant rulings which were victories for gay-rights advocates, including a sweeping decision prohibiting the federal government from refusing to honor the decisions of states to decide who is legally wed.

Today’s ruling is far from being as comprehensive for gay rights in Arizona as it affects only about 250 state and university employees. But it still advances the argument that the state cannot discriminate against gays — especially when they are constitutionally prohibited from marrying in Arizona, making them ineligible for the same benefits the state provides for its married workers.

The fight has been over various benefits Arizona provides to the dependents of its state and university employees.

Until 2008, however, that did not include the domestic partners of its unmarried workers.

That year, at the direction of Napolitano, who was the governor, the Department of Administration rewrote its rules to define who is a “dependent” to include someone living with the employee for at least a year and expected to continue living with that person. That rule contained no reference to the gender of the partner.

The rule also requires a showing of financial interdependence as well as an affidavit by the employee affirming that there is a domestic partnership.

In 2009, Napolitano left to become Homeland Security secretary in the Obama administration, elevating Brewer to governor. That allowed the Republican-controlled Legislature to put a provision into the budget limiting who is entitled to dependent coverage, specifically excluding the partners of unmarried employees, whether gay or not.

The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund then filed suit on behalf of the gay employees; coverage for unmarried heterosexual workers, not part of the litigation, expired two years ago.

In a unanimous opinion, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged that the state is not obligated to provide health insurance for its workers or their families.

“But when a state chooses to provide such benefits, it may not do so in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner that adversely affects particular groups that may be unpopular,” Judge Mary Schroeder wrote for the court. She noted there is no other way for gay workers to get those benefits in Arizona, with a 2008 voter=approved state constitutional amendment barring same-sex nuptials.

Senior Editor, News, Arizona Daily Star, Tucson, Az.