Emory Report
November 29, 2004
Volume 57, Number 13


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November 29, 2004
Georgia vote shouldn't affect Emory policies

BY Michael Terrazas

Despite the Nov. 2 passage of Amendment 1, which approved a change to the Georgia Constitution to redefine marriage as only between a man and a woman, Emory’s policy of extending benefits to same-sex domestic partners is not in jeopardy, according to the Office of the General Counsel.

The amendment’s second clause—which was not printed on the ballot Georgians read at the polls on election day—outlaws civil unions between same-sex partners, and contains legally vague language that potentially threatens other aspects of same-sex partnerships, including health and other benefits, some have worried. But since the University’s benefits to same-sex partners are based on signed declarations that have nothing to do with Georgia marriage law, those policies will not even have to be revised following the passage of Amendment 1.

“Private employers have a lot more latitude; for Emory, it’s a matter of whether two people have a real commitment to each other,” said General Counsel and Senior Vice President Kent Alexander. “We recognize that marriage is not open to some people, and now civil unions aren’t either.”

The University first made benefits available to same-sex partners in July 1995, and Alexander said Human Resources (HR) did it the right way: Instead of requiring two people to be joined in a civil union or other arrangement affected by state law, Emory set its own standard for what constitutes an emotional and financial commitment.

Still, despite this policy, one area where the University does have to abide by state law is in medical decision-making. At Emory Hospital, for instance, if an individual requires medical treatment and has not legally granted decision-making powers to his or her partner, that authority rests with the individual’s blood relatives.

One option available to gay couples is to draw up and sign durable power-of-attorney for health care documents granting one another the authority to make such decisions. However some individuals may not be aware of this option, or one partner may be incapacitated unexpectedly before papers are signed. Therefore it’s important for the gay community to know this alternative exists, Alex-ander said.

On Oct. 26, the University Senate unanimously passed a resolution reaffirming Emory’s support for its benefits policy and declaring that Georgia voters should be fully informed about measures on which they were voting. Following the election, President Jim Wagner echoed that sentiment and lamented that the amendment’s passage could make Georgia as a state appear less hospitable.

“Our opinion regarding the referendum on Amendment 1 is that Emory’s policies will not be affected directly, but that even as Emory itself wishes to be a welcoming, destination University, it desires to be
located in a welcoming, destination state,” Wagner said. “Emory would seek legal recourse to judgments based upon Amendment 1 that would seek to alter our benefits policies.”

The President’s Comm-ission on LGBT Concerns worked with Wagner and the Senate leadership to draft the resolution passed in the Oct. 26 meeting. LGBT Commission Chair Cathi Wentworth said the commission had hoped to come up with stronger language of support—and that they wished such support would have come unsolicited—but that ultimately they were grateful for what happened.

“Our ultimate goal was to better educate the community; that was our No. 1 priority,” Wentworth said. “We felt very good about the support that was demonstrated in the Senate meeting.”

In the wake of Amendment 1’s passage, Wentworth said the commission and the larger LGBT community is determining what to do next. Despite Emory’s analysis, she said she has heard from other legal experts that the amendment potentially could affect the University’s policies.

“This issue feels huge to our community,” she said. “It may not feel that way to some people, but it really is significant. It could affect more than just the gay community.”