MSU Gives Couples Benefits

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The long-divisive issue of whether to grant families of Michigan State University's gay and lesbian employees health and other benefits came to a relatively quiet end Friday, following a decision by the MSU Board of Trustees.

After public comment and an attempt to table the issue, the board voted 5-3 to pass a resolution extending domestic partner benefits to gay and lesbian faculty and staff members.

"By their decision, the Board of Trustees is saying that I'm just as important an employee as any other employee," said Ann Flescher, a counselor at MSU's Counseling Center. "Until that vote, I didn't feel like that."

Employees can receive the benefits after an enrollment period for faculty and contract negotiations with some staff bargaining units. Administrators have not announced a definitive time span for the period, or when that period will begin.

MSU Trustee Robert Weiss, who proposed the resolution, said he didn't take a stand on the issue in November 1995--when the board decided to delay its decision for two years--because he wanted to make sure that it was no easier for same-sex couples to receive benefits than for legally married couples.

Weiss said he does not see the domestic partner benefits issue as a moral issue and pointed to one of MSU's Guiding Principles, a set of goals written by university administration.

"It doesn't say what kind of people," Weiss said. "It says 'Make people matter.'"

Besides Weiss, Trustees Joel Ferguson, Dorothy Gonzales, Colleen McNamara and Bob Traxler voted for the proposal. Trustees Dee Cook, Don Nugent and Jack Shingleton voted against extending benefits.

The current proposal sets firmer guidelines for couples applying for benefits, Weiss said.

"This is not a willy-nilly situation," Weiss said. "It's a serious legal endeavor in which people have serious responsibilities."

Weiss also addressed concerns of people who said the resolution was unfair because it does not apply to heterosexual unmarried partners.

"Frankly, they have an alternative," he said. "They can be married. They have a choice. Same-sex partners don't have that choice."

Nugent said he opposed the resolution. "I have difficulty with this because neither the federal government nor the state government recognizes same-sex partnerships as marriages," he said. "It's a sad, cloudy day for me."

Nugent made a motion to table the resolution, citing the board's November 1995 decision to study the issue for two years. The trustees defeated the motion by a 5-3 vote.

Shingleton said it's not the university's job to redefine the meaning of traditional family. "I hope it is not being done in an effort to be politically correct," he said.

Before the vote, the board heard public comment. James Muffet, an Eaton Rapids resident, asked the trustees to vote against the resolution. He said that by passing it, trustees would be legitimizing "abhorrent" and "destructive" behavior.

Kay Palinski, an MSU alumna, also spoke against the resolution. She said the resolution is unfair because it "gives the homosexual label benefits over the friendship label," leaving out people who live together but who are not partners.

Leo Sell, the chair of the MSU Administrative Professional Association, said he supported the resolution, but with one recommended change.

Sell urged trustees to change the resolution to include all unmarried domestic partners.

"It's a step toward no longer selectively invalidating relationships," Sell said.

After the resolution's passage, supporters said they welcomed the board's decision.

John Huebler, president of the Gay and Lesbian Faculty and Staff Association, said he believed tabling the issue would have been counterproductive.

"I think today was the right time to do this," he said. "All the research is done. I'm not aware of any questions left to be answered. I think this is a very bright day for the university."

Several students were present at the meeting. "My heart was in my throat," said first-year veterinary medicine student Shannon Maynard. "I heard so much emotion from everyone, both for and against. I was just praying that it would pass."

To receive the benefits, same-sex couples must meet a list of criteria outlined in the resolution. Some of the requirements say the couples must:

* be in a long-term, committed relationship, have been in the relationship for at least six months and intend to remain in the relationship indefinitely.

* not be married to others, and have no other domestic partner.

* not be related close enough to bar marriage in Michigan.

* share a residence and have done so for at least six months.

* provide a "signed partnership" agreement with MSU that obligates each party to provide support for one another, and provides for a substantially equal division, upon termination of the relationship, of earnings during the relationship and any property acquired with those earnings.