Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Marquette University to offer domestic partner benefits...to those who register with the state in a registry that is the subject of court challenge.

Going on two years ago, Wisconsin adopted a domestic partner registry in spite of the fact that it has a "super-DOMA" constitutional amendment. Almost immediately, the registry was challenged as unconstitutional, as I wrote about here. Well, the past week has seen two items of related news.

The same Wisconsin governor who has been forcefully criticized for his union-busting efforts recently fired the law firm hired by the previous governor to defend the domestic partnership law. Although the Associated Press account suggested he would appoint a different attorney, it's unclear whether that would actually be a blessing. The excellent lawyers from Lambda Legal remain in the case defending the DP registry, and it is hard to imagine any lawyer appointed by the governor actually helping them in their defense.

Meanwhile, Marquette University, a Jesuit school in Wisconsin, announced last week that it will extend domestic partner benefits to those same-sex couples who register with the state. There's no reason why this private university's benefits should turn on the constitutionality of the state's DP registry, so I am sorry to see the two tied together. Schools affiliated with the Catholic Church have had various difficulties providing employee benefits to partners of their employees. But that difficulty has also produced some creativity. A few years ago, Georgetown University began offering benefits to "legally domiciled adults." A "legally domiciled adult" is someone who has lived with the employee for at least six months, is not married or related to the employee, and has a "close personal relationship," shares living expenses, and is financially interdependent. Same-sex partners qualify, but so do other relationships, including different-sex unmarried partners.

While Marquette's approach is a more explicitly pro-gay effort, Georgetown's is more consistent with "beyond marriage" values. As long as different-sex couples must marry, the unmistakable message remains that marriage is a relationship more valuable than all others. The Alternatives to Marriage Project regularly advocates for "plus one" benefits not tied to marriage. In a blog post last month I criticized Lambda for its representation in Arizona of only state employees with same-sex partners when those with different-sex partners also lost DP benefits when the state legislature undid the reform efforts of former governor Janet Napolitano.

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