A travel group violated California’s anti-discrimination laws when it refused to allow a gay couple to use tickets an employee won, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said in a letter urging the company to change its policies.

The ACLU sent the letter on behalf of La Mirada resident Rob Anders, a long-time airline industry employee, who won round-trip domestic airfare on Northwest Airlines for him and a companion at his company holiday party last December. But when he tried to redeem the tickets for himself and his registered domestic partner, Northwest refused.

“What happened to Mr. Anders and his partner violates California law and is clearly discriminatory,” said Christine P. Sun, ACLU of Southern California staff attorney. “We are asking that the company not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or marital status and honour Mr. Anders’ ticket for him and a companion.”

Mr Anders, who has lived with his partner for 15 years, had been planning to use the tickets to visit his 89-year-old mother in Florida for a family reunion last month. “I felt terrible,” he said. “I thought what they were doing was unfair.”

A representative from Northwest Airlines told him that the airline would only recognise a spouse, another airline employee, or a dependent child as a companion. The representative specifically stated Northwest Airlines would not recognize a registered domestic partner as a “spouse” for the tickets.

In its letter to Northwest, the ACLU said that the Unruh Civil Rights Act, part of California law, “mandates ‘full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever’ without regard to sexual orientation or marital status.”

“Because same-sex couples who wish to marry cannot currently do so under California law, using marriage as a criterion discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation,” Ms Sun said.

“Northwest’s policy also discriminates on the basis of marital status because it does not permit unmarried heterosexual individuals to bring the companion of their choice.”

Mr Anders, 60, has lived in Southern California since 1971. He and his partner registered as domestic partners in California in 2004.

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