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February 3, 2000

ULS faculty group wants health benefits for same-sex partners of employees

The University Library System (ULS) faculty organization has joined a number of other campus groups in urging Pitt to extend health benefits to same-sex partners of faculty and staff.

By a mail ballot, the ULS Faculty Assembly voted 26-7 (with 5 abstentions) last month to approve a statement that calls Pitt's current health benefits policy "discriminatory and harmful to University employees and their families.

"This policy negatively affects the University's ability to recruit and retain highly qualified and talented academic scholars," according to the librarians. "For many, it is a statement of the University's level of sincerity in valuing diversity within the workplace.

"We urge the University of Pittsburgh to embrace the spirit of its own nondiscrimination, equal opportunity and affirmative action policy and join other leading academic institutions by offering same-sex domestic partner benefits. Our confidence in the University administration remains such that the University will, in fact, take a leadership position in this and other socially and ethically sensitive issues."

The ULS Faculty Assembly represents more than 50 faculty librarians.

Copies of the statement were mailed to Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, the Board of Trustees, ULS Director Rush Miller and the University Senate anti-discriminatory policies committee, said ULS Faculty Assembly President Kate Thomes.

Faye R. Leibowitz, who chairs the ULS assembly's faculty affairs committee, said the statement was intended to express support for homosexual colleagues and promote "a friendlier and more inclusive" work environment.

"I don't think anyone believes that this action by itself will result in a change in the University's policy," Leibowitz said. "But if enough people go on record as we've done, it could have some effect."

Last year, the University-wide Faculty Assembly and Senate Council, the Graduate and Professional Students Organization and other employee and student groups passed resolutions urging Pitt to extend health benefits to same-sex partners and drop its challenge to the city's anti-discrimination law.

Attorneys for Pitt challenged the city law as part of the University's legal fight against a complaint filed with the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations by Deborah Henson in 1996.

Henson, a former legal writing instructor here, alleges that Pitt violated the city law by denying health benefits to her lesbian partner. Six current employees have joined Henson in what is now a class action suit.

Pitt officials argue that the city lacks authority to enforce the part of its law that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation. They deny that the University seeks to undermine the city law or the rights of gays and lesbians. Rather, they say, Pitt's strategy is purely defensive and seeks dismissal of a weak case.

In December, Pitt asked Common Pleas Court of Allegheny County Judge Robert C. Gallo to end the lawsuit. Last month, lawyers for both sides argued their cases in legal briefs filed with Gallo's office.

The judge has asked the two sides to make oral arguments, but has not set a date yet for those presentations. Until Common Pleas Court rules on Pitt's motion to dismiss, the city Human Relations Commission proceedings in the case remain on hold.

— Bruce Steele

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