Thursday, December 9, 2004

To some major Massachusetts employers, this year’s advent of same-sex “marriage” means the end of their domestic-partnership benefit programs.

The decision by IBM Corp., the New York Times Co. and Northeastern University to offer health benefits only to “married” same-sex couples pleases some advocates, but troubles others.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s Goodridge decision, which legalized same-sex “marriage” as of May 17, “leveled the playing field,” said Candace Quinn, vice president of Baystate Health System, which employs 90,000 people.

Years ago, she said, Baystate started offering domestic-partner benefits to its homosexual employees, because “they had no other option to cover their life partners.”

The Goodridge decision changed everything for same-sex couples, she said, and because Baystate doesn’t offer domestic-partner benefits to unmarried heterosexual couples, it created an unfair situation for them.

“So we are going back to the policy that we only supply benefits to married couples,” said Ms. Quinn, adding that the policy change was announced in the summer so Baystate’s 50 affected employees could make plans — including wedding arrangements.

These decisions show that “corporate America is taking a step toward equality,” said Winnie Stachelberg, political director at the Human Rights Campaign. “Equalizing benefits, responsibilities and rights for individuals by corporations was exactly what this [Goodridge] case was all about. It was about fair and equal treatment.”

Other homosexual rights groups, however, have expressed concerns that such policy changes could have unintended consequences.

“There is no reason to terminate domestic-partnership policies immediately,” Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) said in a report.

Many homosexual couples have good reasons not to “marry” — tax liabilities, potential job losses if they are in the military, potential rejection as adoptive parents — said GLAD, whose lawyers won the landmark Goodridge case.

“Without careful thought, employers could inadvertently harm their employees’ families and children,” the group said.

Massachusetts companies are making logical decisions in changing their policies, said Peter Sprigg, director of the Family Research Council’s Center for Marriage and Family Studies. What’s striking, he said, is that groups such as GLAD “are complaining about it.”

“If homosexual activists were sincere in wanting to participate in the institution of marriage, they should have no problem with the abolition of domestic-partner benefits once they earn the right to marry,” said Mr. Sprigg, the author of “Outrage: How Gay Activists and Liberal Judges are Trashing Democracy to Redefine Marriage.”

The fact that some homosexual activists want to keep their options open shows that they are more interested in a “smorgasbord of relationship choices” with financial benefits, not marriage, he said.

According to a Boston Globe story this week, major employers who are phasing out their domestic-partner health benefits include: IBM Corp., Raytheon Co., Emerson College, Northeastern University, the National Fire Protection Association, Boston Medical Center and the New York Times Co., which owns the Globe.

Some companies, such as the Times Co., are dropping domestic-partner benefits only for nonunion employees because union employees have their benefits set by collective-bargaining agreements, the Globe story said.

Brad Salavich, global program manager for work force diversity at IBM, told the Globe that its domestic-partner benefit — which will be phased out by January 2006 — was intended to “equalize benefits” for homosexual couples.

“If [employees] choose not to continue to receive the benefits, that is a personal choice,” he said.

“It’s sad and unnecessary” that any company would drop health benefits to couples, said Marshall Miller, co-founder of the Alternatives to Marriage Project, which in June joined leading homosexual rights groups in urging Massachusetts employers to retain their domestic-partnership plans.

“As a society, we all benefit from having more people insured. And it certainly doesn’t help the institution of marriage to force people to marry in order to get health insurance,” he said.

Squabbling over benefits “is not surprising,” said Kristian Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which supports traditional marriage and opposes benefits for unmarried people.

“There’s a lot of confusion here as to which way we are going, as a culture. We’re in sinking sand right now … and we need to get back on solid footing,” he said.

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