Same-sex case may have broad effects


What do a law student, an associate professor, the American Civil Liberties Union and a state… What do a law student, an associate professor, the American Civil Liberties Union and a state senator have in common? They are all opposed to the legal actions that Pitt has taken in its defense of the right to deny same-sex health benefits to its employees.

A forum to discuss both the impact of Pitt’s lawsuit against the city, as well as the broader implications that a legal success by Pitt might have, was held in Room 324 of the Cathedral of Learning Monday night.

Deborah Brake, an associate professor of law at Pitt, spoke about the broader legal repercussions of a Pitt victory against the city. She also discussed the future of local law and the ability of localities to pass legislation.

“Their arguments are not limited to same-sex benefits, nor are they limited to Pittsburgh,” Brake said, addressing the effects the legal actions could have on the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people.

Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Robert Hill, who was not at the forum, responded to the issues discussed during the evening, saying that the University “is a defendant in the actions before the Human Relations Committee.”

“We never wanted this litigation,” Hill said. “We didn’t start it, but the University has a responsibility to defend itself vigorously.”

Hill added that Pitt still believes the appropriate resolution would be an “out-of-court one.”

“We’re still hopeful for such a resolution,” he said.

Carey Cummings, a third-year law student at Pitt, spoke about the origins of the case, as well as what Pitt might be doing to its reputation by taking legal actions against the equal rights ordinance passed by the city.

“It’s not an argument that Pitt should be making, especially as the city’s largest employer,” Cummings said.

“It’s just a ridiculous, ridiculous argument,” Cummings added.

About 10 years ago, the city of Pittsburgh passed an ordinance that reaffirmed the city’s commitment against discrimination based on sexual orientation, as well as race, creed, gender or age.

A little more than seven years ago, Deborah Henson, an employee at the time, requested that Pitt provide her domestic partner with health benefits, as Pitt does for those who are married, whether by ceremony or common law.

Pitt denied her request, saying that Pitt’s policy only provided health benefits to employees who are married – and marriage is defined in Pennsylvania as being a union between a man and a woman.

Henson, with the support of other employees and the ACLU, sued the University for violating the equal rights ordinance that the city had passed.

Pitt later filed a lawsuit against the city, saying that Pittsburgh cannot pass such an ordinance because the city cannot expand upon the state statutes for prohibiting discrimination.

The lawsuit against Pitt was suspended for a period of time, when both parties agreed to the formation of a committee to study the feasibility of instituting such a policy at Pitt.

The committee decided that such a policy would work at Pitt, but that it might draw financial backlash from certain conservative elements of the state legislature.

The suit has since been revived.

Lai-San K. Seto, programs coordinator for the greater Pittsburgh chapter of the ACLU, first explained the entire situation in greater detail, then focused on what she felt to be the most important issue behind the case.

“This is a question about fairness for all of us,” Seto said. “The University has decided not to treat its own employees fairly.”

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, one of the original co-authors of the Pittsburgh equal rights ordinance, also came to speak.

Ferlo discussed his personal feelings about the actions taken by Pitt, saying that he felt the actions of Pitt and its board of trustees were “immoral and reprehensible.” He also pointed out the need for greater participation to defend the ordinance.

“It is very critical that we do anything to preserve and protect the ordinance,” Ferlo said. “The actions of the University and the chancellor are backward actions.”

After all of the members of the forum had spoken, the audience was given a chance to ask questions of them.

When one student stood up and asked what Pitt had to gain from its lawsuit against the city ordinance, associate law professor Deborah Brake had no answer.

“Besides not offering benefits to same-sex partners?” asked Brake. “I have no idea.”