UM officials considering domestic partner benefits

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Faculty and staff at University of Maryland College Park would become the first state employees to win domestic partner benefits under a proposal getting wary consideration from state and university officials.

The UMCP campus senate passed a resolution in May calling for the change as a matter of equity for gay employees, who are unable to secure the benefits given to spouses because they are not married to their companions. The campus senate said the exclusion of gays violated the school's policy banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

But the measure, covering the campus' 5,000 employees, appears unlikely to sail quickly through the university system and state legislature.

"In some respects, it's an issue as complex and emotionally charged as the issue of abortion," said Donald N. Langenberg, chancellor of the University of Maryland System. "It seems like forever that [abortion] has been on the table, and it's on the table still."

UMCP representatives made their bid to the University System's board of regents on Aug. 19, but the board has not slated a vote on the issue. State and University System officials now say they face a tough choice with social, political and financial implications.

Homosexual sex remains illegal in Maryland, and offenders could face up to 10 years in prison for breaking the largely unenforced law.

Archbishop James A. Hickey of Washington fired an early salvo in the debate, writing in a June 3 letter to UMCP President William E. Kirwan that the UMCP senate's proposal was a "direct assault on the family." Dr. Kirwan has not taken a position on the issue, saying the board of regents wants to issue a systemwide decision this fall.

"This is breaking ground on new social policy in our country," Dr. Kirwan said. "It seems to be a direction that is gaining some acceptance, but it still has a long way to go before it becomes the norm."

More than 30 colleges

Faculty members who support the measure and off-campus advocates say that more than 30 colleges and universities provide full benefits to gay partners, including Harvard, Stanford, the University of Chicago and the University of Minnesota

system. And a growing number of cities -- many of them communities such as Cambridge, Mass., that are host to college campuses -- have also granted benefits to the partners of gay employees.

In Maryland, the city of Takoma Park was the first to adopt domestic partner benefits last year. Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke also extended such benefits to city workers, but earlier this year, the Baltimore City Council rejected a domestic partner registry, which would have provided a record resembling a marriage license.

F: Similar measures elsewhere have met strong resistance.

Legislators object

At the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., which is a state-supported school, a similar proposal was defeated earlier this year after the opposition of Virginia legislators, citing sodomy laws and tight budgets.

"Virginia taxpayers will not be called on to pay for the health risks incurred in so-called 'same-sex marriages,' nor will we condone such activity or allow it to permeate our college campuses," Virginia House Minority Leader S. Vance Wilkins Jr. wrote to William and Mary President Timothy J. Sullivan in February.

Three entities control benefits for the spouses of employees at College Park: the campus, which offers the use of libraries, day care centers and discounts on tickets to sporting events; the system, which provides tuition waivers and family-related leave; and the state, which gives health and pension benefits to employees.

It is that last provision -- health benefits -- that has raised the most controversy at campuses across the nation in the past three years. But even quietly offering inexpensive benefits, such as privileges at a college library, is not without implications.

"Many campuses use the painless ones to grease the skids for health care benefits, because that's the benefit that everyone wants," said Kurt Shepard, director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Campus Project, which is based in Los Angeles.

Report next month

The Johns Hopkins University does not extend any benefits except to married couples, but a task force studying benefits will confront the issue in a report to administrators next month, Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea said. Other prominent universities, including several University of California campuses, the University of Virginia and Duke University, are considering policies extending spousal rights to gay partners.

In contrast, the UMCP measure would also include opposite-sex partnerships, which some college administrators said could be difficult to verify.

One leading Maryland legislator who questioned how to determine long-term relationships other than marriages also said the General Assembly would not pass a policy limited to UMCP employees.

"I can't imagine a major policy such as that being implemented for just one segment of the state employee population," state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said. "This is a matter that's not unique to either College Park or the University System."

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees International has already called for similar policies, said Bill Bolander, director of the union's Council 92. The council represents 10,000 Maryland state employees.

Officials at three campuses that now include the gay partners of employees in health care coverage say participation in the programs and their subsequent costs have been low. Many gays do not want to proclaim their sexuality publicly, administrators said. Others may not have partners who require health insurance, or their companions may already have coverage from their own employers.

Programs' enrollment

At Stanford University, which offers benefits solely to gay partners, the additional cost has been $100,000 in an annual benefits budget of $24 million, spokesman Pete Rapalus said. About 60 people, most of them graduate students who qualify as employees, enrolled in the program, he said.

At the University of Iowa, the first campus to offer health care insurance to gay partners of employees, the additional cost each year is $20,000 in a pool of $52 million, said Richard Saunders, the school's director of personnel. Only 16 workers of a work force of 14,000 signed up. "You blink, and you wouldn't see it go by," Mr. Saunders said.

"There's much more involved here than cost," said UMCP's Dr. Kirwan. "A relatively small number of institutions have embraced such a policy. There are not all that many private corporations that have done so.

"When that occurs, people move cautiously," he said.

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