PHOENIX — Gay marriage proponents marked another victory Thursday after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected appeals from Arizona and Nevada involving the rights of same-sex couples.
The justices let stand an appeals court ruling striking down an Arizona law that made state employees in same-sex relationships ineligible for domestic partner benefits. The Nevada case was a challenge to the state's ban on same-sex marriage. The court did not elaborate on the reason for not taking up the cases.
The court's decisions on the two cases are not as sweeping as rulings Wednesday that made it a landmark week for gay rights. The Supreme Court issued decisions that struck down a provision that denies federal benefits to married gay couples and also cleared the way for state laws that recognize marriage equality.
In Arizona, the decision means dozens of same-sex state workers will be allowed to keep employee benefits. For the Nevada case, the gay marriage ban will remain intact, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco will decide the next step.
Republican Gov. Jan Brewer denied Thursday that Arizona had targeted gay couples and slammed the court for not recognizing the state's right to balance its budget by limiting employee benefits.
"This case has never been about domestic partners, same-sex or otherwise," Brewer said in a statement. "It is always been about the authority of elected state officials to make decisions with which we have been entrusted by the voters."
Arizona's constitution bans gay marriage and a 2009 law signed by Brewer repealed domestic partner benefits for state workers. Brewer said the state was in a fiscal crisis and couldn't afford to extend health care benefits to employees' dependents if they weren't married. She said the policy was legal because it applied to all employees, regardless of sexual orientation.
Gay marriage proponents counter that the policy was discriminatory because heterosexual couples may marry to obtain benefits, while gay couples can't under state law.
"The state is excluding only one group of employees from family coverage and that is lesbian and gay employees," said Tara Borelli, a lawyer for Lambda Legal in Los Angeles.
The conservative Center for Arizona Policy, which opposes gay marriage, had supported the state's position in court, and has vowed to fight any efforts to overturn the state's ban on gay marriage.
"The Legislature and the governor should have the authority to determine benefits for state employees," President Cathi Herrod said after the ruling.
The legal battle could soon be resolved by voters. Gay marriage proponents began gathering signatures Thursday to change the Arizona constitution and legalize gay marriage. The Equal Marriage Arizona campaign hopes to collect roughly 400,000 signatures to get its constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2014.
The Nevada case was originally filed on behalf of eight same-sex couples, and it argued that a 2002 state constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution by denying same-sex couples the same rights as married couples.
A federal judge in Reno ruled last year that the gay marriage ban was not a constitutional violation and it was upheld. The plaintiffs then appealed that decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals while the anti-gay marriage group requested the Supreme Court hear the appeal instead of the San Francisco court.
Borelli said Nevada law is questionable because the state grants domestic partners the same legal privileges afforded to married couples, while denying gays the right to marry. She said the state must rationalize the exclusion.
The Nevada Legislature recently approved a measure that would legalize gay marriage but changing the state constitution is a lengthy process. Lawmakers must pass the same resolution in 2015 before it goes to voters for final approval on the 2016 ballot. If it clears both hurdles, it would become law. If it fails at any stage, the five-year process must start over.
"We should just have a state law and be done with it," said Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas. "In the constitution we shouldn't be defining marriage, that's not what the constitution is for."
Not legalizing same-sex marriage will have consequences for Nevada over time, said Atkinson, who made national headlines earlier this year when he publicly announced that he was gay during the state Senate's debate on marriage equality.
"We are a tourism state and we do rely on folks visiting our state, so some may decide they're not going to come here because they don't have the same rights here," Atkinson said.