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Taking Marriage Amendments to School: Students--and professors--challenge benefit bans | The Nation

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Taking Marriage Amendments to School: Students--and professors--challenge benefit bans

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Lauren Pruneski

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The third in a series of debates between The Nation and The National Review, moderated by Roll Call.

Thursday, December 14

Progressive gains on election day offered little consolation to gay rights activists who watched as seven states overwhelmingly approved amendments defining marriage as a one-man, one-woman institution. Though Arizona voters made their state the first to reject such a measure--by a slim 2 percent margin--the results elsewhere confirmed that gay marriages and domestic partnerships that resemble marriage, even heterosexual ones, are still a difficult and divisive issue for the U.S. population.

The bitter effects of these marriage amendments are clearly visible on campuses of public universities, where the issue of domestic partner benefits--or the lack thereof--has begun to upset the progressive climate of academia. As lawsuits challenge public employers' rights to provide domestic partnership benefits and state legislatures concur, some professors are choosing to leave their institutions, and some outraged students are speaking out.

University of Wisconsin students have an especially valid reason to be concerned about the language recently added to their state's constitution. Its prohibition of " a legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals," could jeopardize the university's efforts to secure domestic partner benefits for its employees--an ongoing battle that had previously faced tough opposition from the state legislature. Indeed, in states that passed similar amendments in 2004, the legality of offering these benefits to public employees has been challenged in court and by state officials on the grounds that the policies now run contrary to state constitutions. This is bad news for public universities, not only in Wisconsin but also in states like Virginia, Ohio, and Michigan, where voters have ratified similar amendments. Faced with uphill legal battles and a lack of state support, some professors choose to simply leave.

"It scares me to think that we might see some of our most prized researchers leave this system," Christopher Semanas, a senior at UW-Parkside and a member of the state university system's Board of Regents, told Campus Progress. He added that the lack of benefits impacts faculty recruiting: Candidates increasingly seek partner benefits, and UW-Madison is the only Big Ten school that doesn't offer them. Semanas believes this policy puts UW at a disadvantage, and that, ultimately, students pay the price. For this reason, the UW Regents came out publicly against the amendment.

To an administration, faculty, and student body that had mounted such a strong opposition to the amendment, the results on Nov. 7 appeared to be a final blow to their progressive ideals. On the Friday after the election, University chancellor John Wiley held a town hall forum to discuss possible next steps, but by then, many faculty members were already planning to move on. Several professors and staff, including mathematics professor Concha Gomez, announced they would seek employment elsewhere, presumably at an institution where employee benefits weren't regulated by an unfriendly state legislature.

UW-Madison had already suffered at the expense of state policy back in August, when Rob Carpick, a nanotechnology researcher who secured more than $4 million in grants during his tenure, publicly announced he would be leaving Wisconsin for the University of Pennsylvania. As he explained to Campus Progress, his decision to leave was initially motivated by the fact that he couldn't secure benefits for his partner.

"I've had conversations with gay and lesbian faculty who are very frustrated and very hurt, and they are starting to look for positions elsewhere," Carpick added. "They feel that they can put their energy and talents to better use in places where there isn't this kind of discriminatory language in the state constitution."

Faculty and students at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville also face an uphill struggle with the state government over domestic partner benefits. While UVA's administration has refrained from going head-to-head with the legislature, the university counsel has made diligent but unsuccessful efforts to legally secure domestic partner benefits for faculty and staff. According to several UVA law professors, the passage of the state's marriage amendment will very likely only make this struggle more difficult, and many professors and LGBT activists are pessimistic about the university's future. As in Wisconsin, the lack of domestic partner benefits has driven some faculty to other institutions.

"We're losing people who say that they've just had it with the university," said Claire Kaplan, a director at the UVA Women's Center and a member of UVAPride, the LGBT organization for faculty and staff. "There seems to be no way to get these benefits. We've been stymied at every turn."

Wyatt Fore, president of the UVA student group Queer and Allied Activism (QuAA), noted that despite overwhelming support on campus, the administration has been unwilling to take action on repeated calls for partner benefits.

"They said, 'Wait and see if the amendment fails, then we'll talk again,'" Fore said. "And then, of course, the amendment passed." Fore said it has been difficult to organize campus efforts on the issue in the wake of the amendment's passage.

But students had previously made a strong show of support. Back in February, the student council passed a resolution calling on UVA to extend benefits to the domestic partners of employees and graduate students. Fore estimates that as many as three-quarters of all UVA students support the effort, and he is hopeful that, whether through private donations or other means, UVA will ultimately find a way to provide the benefits.

The legality of same-sex benefits is the major obstacle at UVA--a position made murkier by the language of the marriage amendment, which, like Wisconsin's, outlaws domestic partnerships or civil unions. In states that passed marriage amendments in 2004, this type of language has inspired several lawsuits, the majority of them directly involving or concerning public universities. Domestic partner policies at Miami University in Ohio and Michigan State University are currently being challenged in court, and both the University of Michigan and Wayne State University have filed amicus briefs in a lawsuit that will determine whether the state can offer same-sex benefits to its employees.

The early legal rounds have been promising for universities. An Ohio judged dismissed the Miami University case on the grounds that the plaintiff, Thomas E. Brinkman Jr., a state representative and parent of Miami University students, lacked legal standing, but suggested in his opinion that others might have the standing to challenge the policy. In the Michigan case, a circuit court ruled in favor of the partner benefits, arguing that the coverage of a same-sex dependent's health insurance is not a relationship that resembles marriage. The case is currently being appealed by Michigan attorney general Michael Cox, who has issued memos against domestic partner benefits for public employees.

Other state universities, too, face future challenges. Beginning in 2007, the University of Louisville will offer domestic partner benefits, despite the definition-of-marriage amendment passed in Kentucky in 2004. University spokeswoman Denise Fitzpatrick told Inside Higher Ed in October that members of the state legislature were intent on fighting the policy. And in Arizona, where voters made their state the first to reject a marriage amendment, the University of Arizona remains the only PacTen school without domestic partner benefits.

Whatever their frustrations with their state governments, however, students and faculty activists at both Wisconsin and Virginia have all pointed to the same encouraging observation: The marriage amendments, even while making LGBT individuals' legal position more difficult, have had the effect of reinvigorating progressive organizations both on campus and in the larger community. The issue was a major motivator for young voters who, disappointed with the election results, are now mobilizing to keep the fight alive. In Wisconsin, just 10 days after the election, hundreds of students demonstrated in front of the capitol building in Madison, and a variety of forums and events have been held on campus to determine possible courses of action.

Wisconsin students and faculty have several other reasons to be optimistic. Governor Jim Doyle, who strongly supports domestic partner benefits, was reelected, progressives gained in the state Senate, and state Senator Jon Erpenbach has announced plans to introduce a constitutional amendment to ban discrimination in the state. If passed, the amendment would essentially void the amendment that bans civil unions. Semanas and his fellow regents fully intend to take up the issue with this new legislature, and they are hopeful that state residents will see just how much the current benefit policy affects the quality of the university system.

Jake Velleman, a student at UW-Milwaukee and national chair of the College Democrats of America's GLBT caucus, was equally hopeful--noting that passage of the marriage amendment in Wisconsin and the related issue of domestic partner benefits inspired anger and unrest on campus, even among students who are not typically politically active.

"The issue has started a real movement," Velleman said. "I don't think students are ready to just let it be."

Lauren Pruneski graduated from Wesleyan University in May 2004. She works for the National Geographic Society and has written for the Washington City Paper.

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