First year of domestic partner benefits runs smoothly

Nearly a year has passed since the University announced its decision to provide benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of employees. For the most part, implementing the new policy has gone smoothly, but there have been a few bumps along the way.

"From our point of view, the health care enrollment of same-sex domestic partners has gone well," said Pat Douglass, director of Employee Services. "There are about 50 employees who have signed up for these benefits. That's out of an employee base of about 14,000," she said. To sign up, employees fill out an affidavit that certifies they are sharing a long-term committed relationship that is similar to that of marriage in its exclusivity, and that they have financial responsibility for each other's well-being and debts to third parties.

"For me personally, it's meant that my partner now has good health insurance," said Saralyn Chesnut, director of the Office of Lesbian/Gay /Bisexual Life. "I think it's incontrovertible that this policy is an issue of equity and fairness, but it's symbolically important because it acknowledges that same-sex couples have long-term committed relationships, as do heterosexual couples. By having this policy, Emory has set a trend for private schools in the South and for businesses in the South."

In contrast to such support, the policy has been criticized both on and off campus. Last year, several employees wrote letters to the editor of Emory Report to express their disapproval, citing Christian religious beliefs as their objection to the policy. Douglass said she still occasionally hears from employees who don't agree with Emory's decision to offer same-sex partner benefits.

The off-campus criticism has come primarily through Emory's relationship with the United Methodist Church. In mid-July Emory was reprimanded by the United Methodist Church's Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference for having the policy. By a vote of 245-226 with 16 abstentions, the jurisdiction criticized the provision of benefits to domestic partners, according to the Sept. 20 issue of the United Methodist Reporter, the denomination's national weekly newspaper.

President Bill Chace responded to the jurisdictional conference's action in a lengthy letter to Bishop Robert C. Morgan, president of the jurisdiction's administrative council and an Emory trustee. In the letter, Chace said that Emory provides such benefits "because we believe it to be consistent both with our educational mission and with the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church."

Chace wrote that Emory cannot violate its own policy against discrimination. "Insofar as employee benefits are `civil liberties' that should be apportioned equitably, our policy comports with the Discipline's stand for `simple justice in protecting . . . such lawful claims typically attendant to contractual relationships which involve shared contributions, responsibilities, and liabilities, and equal protection before the law.' We do not believe the University's position and the United Methodist Church's position to be in conflict."

--Jan Gleason

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