The University of Pittsburgh and a civil liberties group are heading back to court nine months after a school panel recommended that the university not offer health benefits to the same-sex partners of its employees. Pitt filed a motion recently seeking to permanently bar the city from hearing a lawsuit involving seven former and current workers who allege the university discriminated against them by denying their partners such benefits. The American Civil Liberties Union plans to fight the motion and has until January 21 to respond in court. Both sides remain at odds seven years after former Pitt employee Deborah Henson filed a complaint with the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, saying the school violated the city's 1990 gay rights law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. Six others later joined her in the pending class-action lawsuit.
In 2000, Pitt won an injunction from Allegheny County judge Robert Gallo to bar the commission from hearing the lawsuit, on the basis that the city law exceeded the scope of the state's Human Relations Act. The school also noted that a state law exempts public universities from local laws that mandate that health benefits be extended to domestic partners; Pitt is a state-affiliated school with 9,500 employees. The most recent court filing seeks to make the injunction permanent.
Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU's Pittsburgh chapter, warned that a permanent injunction would dismantle discrimination protection. "If they win that argument, it would essentially wipe out any rights sexual minorities have," he said. Walczak called Pitt's position "bigoted and increasingly obsolete," adding that more colleges and universities move toward offering health benefits to same-sex couples.