updated 8/1/2005 9:51:42 PM ET 2005-08-02T01:51:42

California’s highest court ruled Monday that country clubs must offer gay members who register as domestic partners the same discounts given to married ones — a decision that could apply to other businesses such as insurance companies and mortgage lenders.

The decision by the California Supreme Court dealt with a policy at the Bernardo Heights Country Club in San Diego that allowed only the children, grandchildren and spouses of married members to golf for free.

Birgit Koebke, 48, an avid golfer who pays about $500 a month in membership fees, challenged the policy after being told that her longtime lesbian partner could only play as a guest six times a year while paying up to $70 per round.

The court ruled that the policy constitutes “impermissible marital status discrimination.”

While businesses might once have claimed a legitimate business interest for maintaining different policies for married couples and gay members who cannot legally wed, such distinctions are no longer justified under a sweeping domestic partner law that took effect in California on Jan. 1, the court said.

“The Legislature has made it abundantly clear than an important goal of the Domestic Partner Act is to create substantial legal equality between domestic partners and spouses,” Justice Carlos Moreno wrote for a five-judge majority. “We interpret this language to mean that there shall be no discrimination in the treatment of registered domestic partners and spouses.”

Koebke greeted the ruling, saying: “We aren’t activists, we aren’t politically charged. We just wanted to play golf together and we just really felt we had every human right to do that.”

Attorney: Club will comply
John Shiner, the lawyer representing Bernardo Heights, said Monday, “The club will take whatever action is necessary to comply with the decision of the Supreme Court.” He would not elaborate on whether that means the club will start giving spousal privileges to the partners of gay or lesbian members.

Jon Davidson, legal director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, predicted that the ruling would affect not just country clubs, but mortgage lenders, insurance companies and other businesses that have separate policies or fees for married and unmarried customers.

“What the court said was that if a business in California provides benefits to married couples, it has to provide them equally to couples who register as domestic partners,” Davidson said.

The ruling reversed two lower courts that sided with the country club. But the court also said that the lesbian couple, who have been together since 1993 and registered partners since 1998, was not entitled to seek damages “for being subject to discriminatory treatment” before the domestic law kicked in.

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