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Domestic benefits ping pong: IHEs claim benefits packages keep them competitive; some disapprove.

WHEN TRUSTEES FOR THE UNIVERSITY OF Louisville (Ky.) voted in July to make it the state's first public university to extend health-insurance benefits to unmarried domestic partners, including gays and lesbians, they no doubt believed they were doing a noble thing. After all, at least 300 higher education institutions currently offer health benefits for domestic partners. At the time Louisville President James Ramsey praised the trustees on their action. "That probably wasn't an easy vote for some trustees," he said, noting that extending benefits was "the right thing to do."

The University of Kentucky has also supported the idea of domestic partner benefits and expects to decide on a course of action early next year. In both cases the proposals were largely seen in a practical light, allowing the schools to offer competitive benefits packages that could help recruit and keep the best employees.

Not everyone, however, sees it that way. State Rep. Stan Lee (R-District 45) introduced a bill last month to stop the move. Lee's bill would prohibit any post-secondary institution from providing benefits to unmarried couples--whether they are of the same sex or the opposite sex.

By his reasoning, Kentucky voters rejected the idea of domestic partner benefits when they passed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

A similar fight is under way at Michigan State University, where opponents say the school violates a state constitutional amendment by offering benefits. The 2004 amendment defined marriage "or any similar union for any purpose" as the union of a man and a woman, but at least seven other Michigan institutions currently provide benefits to same-sex couples.

And in Wisconsin, where the University of Wisconsin System has been seeking domestic partner benefits, voters approved a constitutional amendment last month that not only defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, but also bars the state from granting legal status similar to marriage to unmarried individuals. Despite that, the UW System Board of Regents will likely ask lawmakers to provide domestic partner benefits for its workers. UW-Madison is the only Big 10 university that currently does not offer the benefits.

In all three cases, although the legality of the benefits programs has been challenged, few expect the schools to discontinue the packages, especially since similar benefits are becoming more common in the corporate world. Christine Gilgor, executive director of the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, believes the anti-benefits groups don't have the support to carry through on their challenge.
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Title Annotation:BEHIND the NEWS
Author:Goral, Tim
Publication:University Business
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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