Pittsburgh benefits battle spotlights struggle of same-sex couples
January 24 2004 12:00 AM ET
With the White House considering a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, gay activists say they will have to be vigilant in fighting even small-scale battles, such as an eight-year fight over health benefits for partners of gay employees at the University of Pittsburgh. A judge last week barred the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations from hearing a complaint from some Pitt employees who argued that the university violated a 1990 municipal gay rights law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. An attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union said she intends to file an appeal by the end of the week. "The fight in Pittsburgh is essentially same-sex couples saying to Pitt, 'It's discrimination not to treat our relationships the same,"' said Matt Coles, director of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "They say it's because you're not married, but our response is, 'Yeah, we can't get married.' And there you have the missing piece of the entire debate."
While Pitt, a state-affiliated school with roughly 9,500 employees, hoped to settle the issue out of court, university officials said in the statement that they were "pleased that the court agrees with our legal position that the city ordinance never required us to offer the benefits and that using marriage as a
basis for offering the benefits is not discriminatory." The school has noted that a state law exempts public universities from local laws that mandate that health benefits be extended to domestic partners.
Coles said the president and conservative groups are ignoring fundamental truths about the way people live. "Same-sex couples make commitments together and build lives together, and because the only way society recognizes relationships is through marriages, same-sex couples wind up suffering horribly," Coles said. In the case of Pitt, an internal study by the university found that it would cost less than 1% of current spending to extend health care to gay and lesbian partners, said Christine Biancheria, an attorney working on behalf of the ACLU. Biancheria said she'll likely appeal to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania on the grounds that the state approved the exemption for public universities to extend health care to domestic partners without due process. "I think the judge based his ruling largely on an unconstitutional law and denied us the opportunity to develop a challenge to that law," Biancheria said.
"And he also misinterpreted the impact of the marriage laws on this case."