UM plan to extend benefits rejected Gay, unwed partners denied spousal aid as systemwide policy

July 13, 1996|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- University of Maryland System regents voted down yesterday a proposed policy to extend full spousal benefits to the domestic partners of professors and staff members, dodging a looming spat with leading state officials.

Several prominent politicians and religious groups, including the Maryland Catholic Conference, had opposed the policy for the university system, which covers 11 campuses and 22,000 employees. A systemwide advisory panel set up by the regents had recommended the policy change in a 5-2 vote this spring.

"It's quite an uplifting decision," Bill Blaul, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said of yesterday's vote by regents. "Through this action, they are not blurring the lines between traditional heterosexual marriage and other relationships that are short of that."

Although the regents voted overwhelmingly yesterday to draft a policy barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the UM system, several campus activists said the measure fell far short of offering equal status to gay and lesbian couples.

"I'm absolutely dismayed to discover that I work for an institution governed by cowards," said William V. Patterson, an associate professor of theater at the University of Maryland College Park. After the vote at College Park's Stamp Student Union, he gathered with other activists in the foyer of the grand ballroom and pledged to continue to fight for the policy change.

The issue illustrated the chasm between politics on and off campus. Although faculty and staff members backing the policy had won the support of many university administrators, the legislators who control the campuses' budgets appeared much less enthusiastic.

The cost of the extension of benefits, estimated at $170,000 a year, would be small in comparison with the system's annual budget of about $1.8 billion. But the issue of recognizing gay and other unmarried couples is a symbolic as well as a financial one.

"People treat this like it's just an issue," said Vicky Foxworth, a program director in College Park's human relations office who supported the change. "This is our lives. It's about how we feel about our jobs and it's also about what we've given to the University of Maryland system."

The proposal had been denounced by state House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat, and state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat. This spring, the two legislative leaders sent separate letters saying that granting spousal benefits to gay or unmarried heterosexual couples would undermine families.

In public remarks before the vote, several regents said they were uncomfortable carving out a new definition of commitment -- in this case, equating marriage to a long-term partnership between two unmarried adults -- previously unrecognized by any other state agency.

Yesterday's vote was the culmination of a process started in the spring of 1994, when the College Park faculty senate first XTC backed benefits for domestic partners. UM System Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg said that fall that regents would weigh the policy on a systemwide basis.

This April's report by the advisory panel generated four proposals that were considered by the board yesterday. Aside from the nondiscrimination policy, which passed 10-2, and the extension of spousal benefits, which was defeated 8-2, the board soundly defeated proposals to: Call on the General Assembly to consider extending state-controlled spousal benefits to domestic partners of all state employees.

Instruct institutions to extend their discretionary benefits to the domestic partners of employees.

Pub Date: 7/13/96

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