Originally created 12/16/02

Couples urge partner benefits



ATHENS, Ga. - If Adrian Childs has one wish, it's that his partner of 10 years, Craig Wiegert, doesn't become ill anytime soon.

A doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois, Mr. Wiegert is using a distance learning program to finish his degree while living in Athens with Mr. Childs.

Once Mr. Wiegert gets his diploma in June, his student health insurance will expire, leaving him without coverage until he finds a job with benefits.

"It weighs on our minds," said Mr. Childs, an assistant professor of music at the University of Georgia, which doesn't offer domestic-partner benefits to same-sex couples. "Certainly our hope is that he will find a good job, but I also know that if he were my wife, we wouldn't have to worry about how we are going to provide for his insurance."

Mr. Childs is part of the Domestic Partnership Coalition of the University System of Georgia, a group that includes employees throughout Georgia's 34 public colleges and universities, including Augusta State University. The organization's goal is to persuade the Georgia Board of Regents, which oversees the university system, to approve domestic-partner benefits for university employees who are homosexual and a nondiscrimination policy protecting sexual orientation.

In September, UGA requested that the regents offer a domestic-partner plan to the university's faculty and staff. The regents responded that, amid tight finances, the state's benefits package is being reviewed.

"What's taking place right now is some very long-range planning," said Arlethia Perry-Johnson, a regents spokeswoman. "Quite frankly, (domestic-partner benefits) have to be considered against competing priorities."

A recent survey by the Human Rights Campaign, a national homosexual advocacy group, found that among the more than 3,100 accredited colleges and universities in the United States, 177 offer gay couples some form of traditional "spouse benefits," such as health insurance.

Private schools such as Harvard, Stanford and Yale universities began offering domestic-partner benefits to employees in the 1990s, and public systems in California, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire and New York also have changed their policies to include same-sex couples. The schools say they expect the policy change to help them recruit and retain better workers.

Although some schools have chosen to offer domestic-partner benefits in recent years, Southern universities and colleges have been reluctant to expand their coverage.

Of the 177 schools with domestic-partner benefits, 29 are in the South, and only two are in Georgia.

Emory University in Atlanta and Agnes Scott College, a women's school in Decatur, are the only Georgia schools that offer domestic-partner benefits. Sadie Fields, the director of the Christian Coalition of Georgia, says domestic-partner benefits are unacceptable on moral and economic grounds.

"It elevates same-sex partnership or liaisons to close to the same level as a traditional marriage, and that is wrong," she said. "Taxpayers' funds should not be used to fund different agendas that go against the belief system of the majority. It hurts families."Despite objections from the Christian Coalition and other groups, opponents and supporters of domestic-partner benefits say the main debate these days is over the cost, not the morality, of implementing such a system.

"Any benefits modification has to be considered in a financial context," said Ms. Perry-Johnson, noting that Georgia's university system employs more than 35,000 workers. "These kinds of contracts are negotiated years in advance. You're talking about a massive system."

Evidence from schools that have domestic-partner programs, however, shows that adding the benefits for homosexual couples usually increases a school's overall benefits spending by less than 0.25 percent.

At the University of Michigan, domestic partner benefits have been available to the school's 35,000 employees since 1994. In 2001, 154 employees signed up for the plan, costing the school about $160,000. That figure accounts for 0.14 percent of the school's $58 million in health expenditures for employees.

NOT COVERED

None of the 34 public colleges or universities in Georgia offers domestic-partner benefits such as health insurance to gay employees. Two private schools, Emory University and Agnes Scott College, have such plans.

Reach Brian Basinger at (404) 589-8424 or brianmns@mindspring.com.