Other items: Sears settles charge over campaign aid; Wal-Mart workers can seek plaintiffs; Dug-up tapes lead to molesting charges

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Helena, Mont.

A divided Montana Supreme Court declared yesterday that the state constitution’s guarantee of equal protection extends to gays, and ruled that the state university system must offer same-sex couples the same health benefits available to heterosexual ones.

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In a 4-3 decision, the justices struck down the university’s policy of denying benefits to employees’ gay partners.

The high court said the policy violates the Montana Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection because unmarried heterosexual partners could receive the benefit by signing a common-law marriage affidavit, while unmarried gay partners could not.

The ruling, which reversed a 2002 lower-court decision, did not address the issue of gay marriage, barred under the Montana Constitution.


Austin, Texas


Sears settles charge over campaign aid

Prosecutors agreed to drop an illegal-campaign-contribution charge against Sears, Roebuck and Co. in exchange for its cooperation in an investigation of contributions to a political-action committee associated with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

A Travis County judge signed off on the agreement yesterday. It said the retailer strengthened its policy against making illegal contributions in any state.

Sears was one of eight corporations accused of donating money to Texans for a Republican Majority during the 2002 legislative campaign. The use of corporate money for political purposes is illegal in Texas.

Three associates of DeLay also have been indicted, but the lawmaker himself has not been.


Newark, N.J.


Wal-Mart workers can seek plaintiffs

A federal judge has given undocumented Wal-Mart contract workers the right to seek out colleagues and form a group to collectively sue the company for unpaid overtime and minimum-wage violations.

U.S. District Judge Joseph Greenaway gave lawyers six months to notify eligible workers that they may join the suit against Wal-Mart. Greenaway will determine next summer whether the group comprises workers with similar enough claims that they can sue collectively.

The ruling will allow potentially “tens of thousands” of former Wal-Mart employees from countries including Mexico, Mongolia and the Czech Republic to participate in the suit, said lawyer James Linsey, who brought the case.


Los Angeles


Dug-up tapes lead to molesting charges

A man was charged with molesting a 3-year-old girl after a dog dug up 1993 photos and videotapes of the alleged crime in a back yard near Oxnard, Calif., police said Wednesday.

Jack Sobonya, 54, is to be arraigned next week on five counts of lewd and lascivious acts with a child. He is being held on $1 million bail.

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Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb and the Libertarian Party’s Michael Badnarik asked a federal court in Columbus, Ohio, yesterday to force a second recount of the state vote, alleging county election boards altered votes and didn’t follow proper procedures in a recount that ended this week.

Workers at NASA’s New Orleans facility gave a 27-ton shuttle fuel tank a final inspection yesterday before its five-day voyage across the Gulf of Mexico to the Kennedy Space Center.

Two Norfolk, Va., buses were halted and searched yesterday outside Norfolk Naval Station after a caller made a threat. The Navy later concluded the message was a hoax, authorities said.