Domestic dispute 

Same-sex partners sue University system for benefits

Two University of Montana employees filed a lawsuit in state court this week challenging the University system’s policy of not granting health benefits to same-sex domestic partners.

They are joined in the lawsuit by their partners, the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and PRIDE, Montana’s statewide gay rights group.

“I became a plaintiff because I want to take care of my family the best way I can,” says Carla Grayson, an assistant professor of psychology and one of the plaintiffs. Grayson’s partner, Adrianne Neff, is taking time off from work as a medical social worker to stay at home and raise the couple’s 22-month-old son. She has health insurance from Grayson’s previous job, but it will run out soon and she will have to go back to work.

Beyond their immediate family situation, says Grayson, fairness and economic equity are at stake.

“What we think of as fringe benefits or extras actually represent a really large percentage of your overall compensation package,” Grayson says. “My effective salary is significantly less than if my partner happened to be of the opposite sex.”

The dispute over same-sex benefits has been brewing for years at the University. The Outfield Alliance, a group of gay and lesbian faculty and staff, drafted a proposal to extend benefits to same-sex domestic partners several years ago. It garnered the support of the faculty senate and union, as well as the student government, and went to Montana’s Commissioner of Higher Education, Richard Crofts, in early 2000. Crofts rejected that proposal, and in May an appeal to the Montana Board of Regents was also turned down. Crofts explained his decision in a February 2000 memo to the Regents.

“By seeking to provide health insurance coverage for individuals who do not have a legal relationship recognized by the state, this proposal would require a fundamental shift in our policy regarding dependent coverage,” Crofts wrote.

The university does offer benefits to domestic partners, but only for heterosexuals who declare they are married through common law.

“No matter what type of commitment gays and lesbians show to each other we can’t get that kind of coverage,” says Carol Snetsinger, another plaintiff in the case.

Snetsinger, a curriculum and web designer in the Division of Biological Sciences at UM has been with her partner Nancy Siegel for seven years. She says the cost of Siegel’s insurance is two-and-a-half times what it would be if she were covered under the UM plan.

Crofts acknowledged that same-sex partners face the burden of buying more expensive private plans, but wrote in the memo that “their situation is not dissimilar to that of many Montanans who are self-employed or employed in situations where group health insurance is not provided.” Further, he said, the University’s domestic partner coverage does not apply to other worthy individuals, like ailing parents who may live with an employee.

Finally, on the matter of cost, Crofts concluded that more research needs to be done. The teacher’s union and a state consultant determined that extending the benefits would not cost the state anything, but Crofts remained skeptical, noting the fiscal pressure on the health plan in recent years that has made the University reduce benefits and increase employees’ out-of-pocket contributions.

The plaintiffs counter that granting the coverage would have a much more important long-term economic benefit.

“They are by their policy discouraging many different employees from applying to the University system, and we just can’t afford that in Montana,” says Beth Brenneman, legal director for the Montana ACLU. “Governor Martz talked about education being a lynchpin for our economic development. If we’re discouraging qualified candidates from the education system, then what are we doing?” Snetsinger says the discrepancy in benefits has already undermined the University’s inclusive atmosphere.

“From my co-workers and supervisor and the people in my department I don’t feel any direct discrimination, but there are ways I feel very discounted at the University,” she says. One example is at the beginning of each academic year when the University sends out a memo about diversity and tolerance that promotes its policy of non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. For Snetsinger and many of her peers, the message rings hollow.

“I think portraying a diverse working environment or diversity is far different from the actuality of embracing diversity,” Snetsinger says. All of the plaintiffs say they are proud to be participating in the lawsuit, although they have some concerns about being put in the spotlight. The University of Montana community has been very supportive, says Neff, although “there is a small minority of vocal people in this state who don’t want lesbians and gays to have equal rights, and we definitely are nervous about the reaction that we’ll get from them.”

Snetsinger says that the suit is another example of how she has stepped into controversy just by living her life. Several years ago when she and Siegel had a commitment ceremony at a guest ranch in Ovando, there was a community meeting to discuss the lesbian wedding and the ranch received threats and hate mail.

“I’m mostly somebody that lives my life and tried to stand up for who I am and I find myself in different situations that cause some turmoil,” she says. “I suppose that would be considered an activist but I’m mostly just living my life as who I am in the world.”

Up in Ovando, the community ended up being very supportive, with ranchers opening their homes for Snetsinger and Siegel’s guests. They hope the lawsuit will produce a similarly positive outcome.

Attorney Holly Franz, who is representing the plaintiffs in the case, has similar hopes that draw on a community spirit.

“Montana has a history of people standing up for their neighbors, of wanting their privacy but respecting their neighbors’ rights,” she says. “And there’s a tradition of fairness. I really think that what we’re asking for in this lawsuit respects the Montana tradition.”

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