University grants employee benefits to same-sex couples

Hundreds of students, faculty and staff at the University of Texas at Austin are protesting UT’s policy to not extend employee benefits to same-sex couples.

UT is state-funded and therefore does not extend same-sex couples employee benefits because Texas state law prevents it. Several on-campus groups rallied against the university’s exclusion of benefits for same-sex couples Nov. 12 outside the Texas Union Patio.

TCU, however, has offered benefits to homosexual couples since Jan. 1, 2005.

Tracy Thompson, benefits manager for Human Resources, said benefits offered to same-sex couples are equal to those offered to heterosexual couples employed by TCU.

In order to prove partnership, each party must sign a domestic partnership affidavit and submit it to Human Resources.

According to several news reports, UT-Austin is losing prospective professors because benefits for their partners are unavailable, and so they choose to teach where those benefits are granted.

Jack Hill, associate professor of religion, said the policy is beneficial to recruitment.

“It definitely widens the safety net of potential professors here,” Hill said.

Hill also said the policy is not contradictory to the Christian affiliation of the school and, on the contrary, it is something to celebrate. He said extending benefits to same-sex couples is more about fundamental rights and lifting up those who have been marginalized.

“I think it’s more an issue of justice and human rights,” Hill said.

Stephen Sprinkle, associate professor of practical theology at Brite Divinity School, said the corporate world has led the way in this matter of justice and the university world is just waking up to it. The extension of benefits at TCU was a good move on the part of Chancellor Victor Boschini’s administration to acknowledge basic human rights, Sprinkle said.

The emerging controversy in Austin comes at a time when a larger debate surrounds the passage of Proposition 8 in California banning legal same-sex unions.

Sprinkle said he participated in a anti-Proposition 8 protest at the town hall in Austin in November. He said the groundwork for these movements has been laid for years and is not just a response to the recent election.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Sprinkle said. “It is a very hopeful sign to see so many people speaking up for full rights.”

Sprinkle and his partner took advantage of the same-sex benefits offered by TCU as soon as they became available.

“We need to remember that although we have these benefits at TCU and are grateful for them, we are far behind where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender diversity is concerned,” Sprinkle said.

A bill has been drafted for the 2009 Texas legislative session to overturn laws preventing UT-Austin from extending benefits to homosexual employees.