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Published: 12/25/2004

UT partners face a benefits battle

BY KIM BATES
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Pat Groves shares a home, a history, and a 15-year-old daughter with her partner of 30 years.

But one thing the University of Toledo professor can't share with her partner is a health insurance package.

The 25-year professor and other UT employees have fought for years to have domestic partner benefits approved on campus. They say such benefits are necessary for treating employees equally and for attracting and retaining quality instructors.

They've hit a roadblock, though, with the recent passage of state Issue 1.

The University of Toledo is in the middle of a statewide scramble to interpret and respond to the meaning of the state's marriage amendment, one that declares marriage is only between a man and a woman.

"We've been actively working on the benefits issue for several years in terms of making it an important issue in our contract negotiations. Actually, we thought when we were going to the bargaining table this time that it was going to be a done deal," Ms. Groves said. "The issue of partner benefits should not be simply dismissed at this point because of the marriage amendment."

Not so, says Dan Brennan, chairman of the UT board of trustees.

The way he sees it, the amendment is clear: No public money can be spent on benefits for gay couples.

And he said UT won't spend its funds challenging the issue in court when other area schools likely will do so.

"It's not prudent [for us] to fight this battle," Mr. Brennan told protesters who gathered at a board meeting last week.

Domestic partner benefits have been hot topics in recent months at other college campuses as well, including in Michigan, where a new, similar marriage amendment also exists.

In Ohio, five public universities that currently offer the benefits have joined forces to discuss how to interpret the state's amendment, which opponents say is vague and too broad. For now, those schools aren't budging: They will continue benefits to same-sex or opposite-sex unmarried couples.

"We're continuing forward at this point until we get some direction in terms of what the issue means," said Ron Cole, a spokesman at Youngstown State University, the newest school to provide the benefits.

In Michigan, 10 of the 15 state schools offer the benefits as well, according to Dan Hurley, a spokesman for the Presidents Council in Michigan. He was unaware of any schools backing down on their benefits packages and also unaware of any challenges to date to Michigan's new law.

In Ohio, speculation about the amendment being challenged in court has been a major focus for opponents and proponents of the amendment. No such court battles yet exist, said Bob Beasley, a spokesman for the Ohio attorney general's office.

Mr. Beasley added that he could not disclose whether his office has formulated an opinion about the legality of partner benefits in university settings, citing attorney-client privilege.

According to Chris Long, director of the Christian Coalition of Ohio, his group remains pleased about the passage of Issue 1 and is opposed to state money being used for partner benefits.

His take on the amendment is that existing benefits eventually will expire in university union contracts and won't be reinstated in the future.

"If it's a private corporation, Issue 1 doesn't extend to that," he added.

Such interpretations of the law, though, haven't stopped instructors and students at UT from vowing to return to the board early next year with pleas for reconsideration.

Some Bowling Green State University professors are forging ahead with their quest for partner benefits, a process that started about a year ago.

At BGSU, faculty senate members likely will vote on the issue at a meeting on Jan. 18, said Bob Boughton, the group's vice chairman.

If it passes there, and is then approved by the administration, professors said they're hopeful the board of trustees will consider instituting it as well.

"We're kind of behind the times compared to universities on the coast and in industry," said Neocles Leontis, a BGSU professor who helped to organize the effort. "And we want to be fair to all our families."

Contact Kim Bates at:

kimbates@theblade.com

or 419-724-6074.



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