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Pitt continues to defend refusal to add domestic partner benefits

In public comments made after a monthly meeting of the University of Pittsburgh’s board of trustees, Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said Temple University’s recent decision to offer health benefits to the domestic partners of its gay and lesbian employees is “probably a good thing,” but added that it would not be “financially or politically prudent” for Pitt to do the same.

Temple became Pennsylvania’s first public university to offer the domestic partner benefits when it made its announcement in February. But by requiring same-sex couples to pay insurance premiums themselves, the university may have sidestepped the obstacle Pitt has claimed is the reason it cannot offer such benefits: the state Legislature.

Under the agreement, Temple will pay premiums for the partners of heterosexual employees if the couples meet Pennsylvania’s common-law marriage provisions. But same-sex couples, who by definition cannot meet those provisions, will pay the premiums themselves at the university’s group plan rate.

“Offering health care benefits on the terms that Temple has done would not resolve the claims that have been asserted against us,” Nordenberg said. “Those claims seek more than access to insurance benefits, they seek an institutional subsidy of those benefits, which is not a part of the Temple plan. In fact, one publicly expressed hope has been that this feature of the plan will help insulate [Temple] from legislative repercussions.”
Deborah Henson, a former legal writing instructor at Pitt, filed the original complaint against the university in 1996 after her request for health insurance for her female partner was denied.

Pitt has maintained that its policy of limiting health care benefits to married couples does not discriminate against its gay and lesbian employees. But in 1997, the city’s Human Relations Commission found probable cause that Pitt’s refusal to extend the benefits to same-sex couples was discriminatory.

In April 2000, Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Gallo granted Pitt a temporary injunction in the case based on a hastily approved 1999 state law that exempts state-owned or state-related colleges or universities from local ordinances that might require them to offer health benefits to employees’ domestic partners. In January, Pitt requested a permanent injunction to prevent the case from proceeding.

According to Christine Biancheria, a Pittsburgh attorney representing seven plaintiffs in a class-action suit against Pitt, details surrounding passage of the controversial 1999 law have not been open to the process of discovery, but information indicates Pitt was in contact with then-Gov. Tom Ridge’s office to make certain the legislation would pass.

“That [law] didn’t just fall out of the sky,” agreed Charles Morrison, director of the Pittsburgh Human Relations Commission. “It just shows you how much power and influence exists. The bill didn’t say anything about what it actually was. The title is supposed to be related to the content and in this one it was not.”

Though the law is not retroactive, Morrison added, “it could impact the ultimate outcome of the case should that case go forward.”

Josh Ferris, president of the Rainbow Alliance, Pitt’s campus organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, told Out that he too believes university officials worked in concert with legislators in Harrisburg to pass the measure, which Ferris pointed out was tucked into a police-training bill.

A special panel appointed by Pitt in 2001 to study the issue of extending benefits found that “legislators threatened to penalize state institutions that offered domestic benefits.”
Biancheria has called the panel’s claim “complete bullshit,” and points out that given current Gov. Ed Rendell’s positive record on domestic partner benefits, to continue to deny the benefits amounts to antigay legislation.

But according to Pitt spokesman Robert Hill, “the governor is not the legislature.” The university has “had no indication that those attitudes have changed,” Hill added.

When asked how the Legislature’s reaction to Temple’s decision to offer same-sex health benefits might influence Pitt’s position, Nordenberg responded, “Clearly, I think that the responses of the Legislature to this step taken by Temple will put us in a better position to gauge what the political climate is like in Harrisburg.”

Nordenberg acknowledged the university is regularly engaged in conversations with legislators on issues that might affect the university, but said he would not “comment on the substance of those conversations.” When asked if he has discussed with the governor what Rendell’s response might be if Pitt began to offer same-sex partner benefits, Nordenberg replied, “If he indicated a reaction like that in a private conversation with me, do you think I would tell you what it was?”

Biancheria pointed out that at the time Henson filed her complaint, domestic partner benefits were somewhat uncommon, but they’ve since proved to be “cheap and popular.”

“Pitt is now swimming upstream,” said Bruce Venarde, one of the plaintiffs in the case.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, 156 US colleges and universities offer domestic partner health benefits. Fourteen of those schools are in Pennsylvania, including Carnegie Mellon University and Chatham College in Pittsburgh and Allegheny College in Meadville.

There is no rationale for Pitt’s continued resistance to providing benefits, Biancheria said, “[unless] you hate gay people, or are trying to impress someone who does.”

L.L. Kirchner for Pittsburgh's Out
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