Ohio College Sued Over Same-Sex Benefits

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An Ohio lawmaker is suing Miami University, charging that its policy of offering benefits to employees' same-sex domestic partners violates an amendment to the state Constitution banning civil unions. Ohio is among a growing number of states where public colleges offering such benefits face legal challenges. Tana Weingartner of WMUB in Oxford, Ohio, reports.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

An Ohio lawmaker is suing a state university. He says that by offering its employees same-sex domestic partner benefits, the school is violating the state's constitutional amendment banning civil unions. The suit puts Ohio among a growing number of states where such benefits have been challenged in legislatures or in the courts. From member station WMUB in Oxford, Tana Weingartner reports.

TANA WEINGARTNER reporting:

The red brick buildings at Miami University of Ohio are classic and conservative. But it's the school's more liberal domestic partner health benefits that are causing a stir. Miami began offering the benefits five months before Ohio voters approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. A lawsuit filed against the university, which holds the license for member station WMUB, aims to see how far Ohio's ban extends beyond marriage.

(Soundbite of kitchen activity)

Unidentified Woman #1: ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman #2: Come sit with me.

Unidentified Woman #1: Come sit with Mom.

WEINGARTNER: Three-year-old John Jacobsen-Whinery stops bouncing around the living room just long enough to burrow his head in his mother's arms. Amanda Whinery rakes his unruly straw hair back into place and smiles at her partner, Kristen Jacobsen. Neither of them were smiling two years ago, though, when John caught chickenpox at his day care, which progressed to pneumonia and then to reactive airway disease.

Ms. AMANDA WHINERY: The only answer was for Kristen to stay home with him, and that meant no income from her and she had no benefits.

WEINGARTNER: That is, until Miami began offering domestic partner benefits in July 2004. John still has medical issues, but he's back in day care and Kristen goes with him.

Ms. WHINERY: But with Kris there, even though they don't offer benefits, because she's covered under mine, she can work there, and be near him, if he has an attack.

WEINGARTNER: Amanda worries how her family could afford health insurance for Kristen without Miami's benefits plan. Miami University President James Garland doesn't think that will happen.

Mr. JAMES GARLAND (Miami University): We're determined to protect this benefit and we'll do it at all judicial levels.

WEINGARTNER: That doesn't surprise state Representative Tom Brinkman, who has two children enrolled at Miami University. He's also the Cincinnati Republican who is suing the school.

Representative TOM BRINKMAN (Republican, Ohio): We've passed a law, a state constitutional amendment. I think it's important that we test it, and this is certainly a great opportunity to test it out and see if it abides by the law.

WEINGARTNER: An estimated three-quarters of the nation's top 50 colleges offered same-sex partner health benefits in 2004. The clash between school policy and state law puts universities at the uncomfortable center of the continuing debate on gay marriage issues. Universities say the benefits are needed to make the schools attractive when competing for top-notch faculty. But the Ohio lawsuit argues that Miami University's plan is unfair because it doesn't apply to heterosexual domestic partnerships. To qualify, couples must prove they're in a committed relationship and share a common residence. Miami University President James Garland concedes that some heterosexual couples have asked why they can't receive the benefits being offered to same-sex domestic partners.

Mr. GARLAND: We could use the same standards, but then marriage does that for us automatically.

Rep. BRINKMAN: I think that's contradictory.

WEINGARTNER: State Representative Tom Brinkman.

Rep. BRINKMAN: And that shows that they are trying to set up something that approximates marriage among homosexuals.

WEINGARTNER: Nineteen states now have constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. That means the number of lawsuits seeking judicial interpretation when it comes to domestic partner benefits is likely to sharply increase. For NPR News, I'm Tana Weingartner in Oxford, Ohio.

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