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January 23, 2003

Same sex benefits case back in court

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is attacking the constitutionality of a 1999 law that exempts Pennsylvania’s state-related universities (including Pitt) and state-owned schools from municipal ordinances requiring them to provide health benefits.

In a brief filed in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court earlier this month, Pitt lawyers had cited the state act, among other justifications, in asking Judge Robert Gallo to permanently bar the city from hearing a discrimination case between the University and seven current and former employees. The employees say Pitt discriminated by denying health benefits for their gay and lesbian domestic partners.

But in a Jan. 21 response, the ACLU — which is representing the seven Pitt employees — argues that the state health insurance law enacted in 1999 amounted to “stealth legislation” in a manner that violated Pennsylvania’s constitution.

“We believe that the act represented an attempt by some state lawmakers and Pitt officials to help the University wriggle out of the lawsuit,” said ACLU attorney Christine Biancheria.

The ACLU’s brief cites a constitutional article stating that “no bill shall be so altered or amended on its passage through the House as to change its original purpose.” Yet, the state law exempting state-funded universities from city health benefits ordinances began as an amendment attached to an unrelated statute — House Bill 115 — calling for mandatory in-service training for municipal police officers, the ACLU points out.

“Pitt argues that the purpose of HB 115 was ‘to effect changes in the law relating to municipalities generally,’” the ACLU continued. “As even a cursory examination of the original bill demonstrates, this argument is disingenuous, at best. Original HB 115 does not contain a single sentence that was either general or unrelated to police training. Neither did successor versions, until the bill’s final hours in the General Assembly.”

According to the ACLU, legislators were deceived as to HB 115’s contents at the time of passage. “In fact, just a few days after it passed in the Senate by a 50-0 vote, seven Democratic senators recorded as having voted in favor of the measure took the extraordinary step of asking the governor, in writing, to veto the legislation,” the ACLU brief states.

In filing their briefs this month, Pitt and the ACLU broke a 20-month moratorium on litigation in the same-sex benefits case.

In May 2001, both sides had agreed to call a truce while a University committee made up of trustees, administrators, faculty, staff and students examined the question of extending health care coverage to unmarried partners of employees.

After months of study, the committee issued a report recommending that Pitt eventually join the growing number of employers offering health benefits to domestic partners — but that it “would not be prudent” to do so in the foreseeable future, partly because of opposition in Harrisburg to such a move.

Pitt officials called the report “thoughtful.” Proponents of domestic partner benefits called it “morally bankrupt.”

Robert Hill, vice chancellor for Public Affairs, said yesterday that Pitt officials hadn’t read the ACLU’s response to the University’s brief yet “but we do feel it’s unfortunate that the ACLU broke the moratorium by starting up its case again against the University. We have never believed that litigation was the most appropriate way to resolve the domestic partner benefit issue. We’re still hoping that this matter can be resolved by more appropriate means than litigation.”

— Bruce Steele

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