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April 15, 1999

Oral arguments heard in Henson case

Oral arguments heard in Henson case

In arguing that Pittsburgh's anti-discrimination law does not require employers to provide health benefits to same-sex domestic partners, University officials frequently have made the point that the city does not provide such benefits to its own employees.

But Pitt will have to drop that point now that city officials have revealed that they plan to offer health benefits for same-sex partners and common-law spouses to all 3,700 of the city's unionized employees.

The city currently extends those benefits to two unions: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 2719, representing 400 city employees, and the 100-member AFSCME Local 2037.

Assistant City Solicitor Hugh F. McGough said the city also will offer the benefits in contract negotiations with the seven other unions representing city employees.

Following Monday's Senate Council meeting, Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said the city, like any other employer, is free to extend benefits to same-sex partners. But the city's anti-discrimination law does not require employers to offer such benefits, he said. (Senate Council, however, thinks Pitt should offer such benefits, and approved a motion to that effect by a vote of 19-7. See page 3.)

Assistant City Solicitor McGough mentioned the city's extension of same-sex benefits during an April 12 Pittsburgh Human Relations Commission session to hear oral arguments in a complaint against Pitt by former legal writing instructor Deborah Henson.

Henson alleges that the University violated the city's anti-discrimination law by denying health benefits to her lesbian partner.

Pitt attorneys, in a motion to dismiss the complaint, argue that neither state nor city law requires employers to treat employees' domestic partners as spouses.

"At the end of the day, this is a policy argument" rather than a question of law, said attorney Mark Hornak of Buchanan Ingersoll, which is representing Pitt.

Henson and others seeking legal marital status for same-sex partnerships should do so through the state legislature, not the courts, Hornak told Human Relations commissioners.

James Lieber, an ACLU attorney representing Henson, accused Pitt of attempting "to undermine the authority of this commission to be the sole guarantor of rights to a threatened minority, the minority of sexual orientation."

Lieber asked the commission to allow depositions in the case so Henson's lawyers could probe what he called "anti-gay animus" among Pitt trustees and administrators.

Commission solicitor Byrd Brown said the commission will rule on Pitt's motion to dismiss by June 1.

— Bruce Steele

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