Partner benefits under fire

BY CHARLIE PEARL Published:

Keisha Slone, 19, traveled a long way from her home in Floyd County to the Capitol rotunda Monday to support a ban on state universities offering domestic-partner benefits to employees.

A junior accounting major at the University of Kentucky, Slone said, "I think a country that forgets about God is doomed," after the mid-afternoon rally that drew 200 " most of them wearing Protect Marriage stickers. "If we just go about forgetting all of God's commandments, it's just going to end soon, I think."

Kent Ostrander, executive director of the Lexington-based Family Foundation, said Kentucky voters in 2004 overwhelmingly supported a constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage. He said pubic universities would be flouting the constitution by offering domestic partner benefits.

"This is a constitutional crisis," Ostrander said, referring to UK and the University of Louisville, which decided earlier this year to offer domestic-partner benefits to employees. "It's not a time to shout, necessarily. But it's a time to bear witness to the fact that the people of Kentucky have stood for marriage, and do stand for marriage now."

The Kentucky Fairness Alliance, which opposes the proposed benefits ban, sent state lawmakers a petition with more than 1,200 names of people who support partner benefits.

"Most Kentuckians agree healthcare discrimination is wrong," Christina Gilgor, the group's executive director, wrote in the petition letter.

Attorney General Greg Stumbo's office released a statement Monday saying U of L had agreed to abide by his office's recent opinion that universities' domestic-partner benefits plans violated the state constitution.

At the rally, state Sen. Vernie McGaha, R-Russell Springs, who sponsored the bill banning universities and other public agencies from offering health insurance to domestic partners of employees, said he's seen a "dramatic change in the attitude of people toward marriage. And it scares me to death.

"We have put forth an effort to bring protection to the institution of marriage " to keep marriage elevated to the level where God intended for it to be. Marriage is sacred, and to do any less is intolerable to me."

McGaha said the state's two major universities "have snubbed our constitution and regional universities are ready to do the same." He said he was proud to sponsor the legislation.

"I've had a few knocks and bruises over it," he said. "That's all right. I've got broad shoulders. Bring them on When you're doing what is right, nothing matters."

Rep. Stan Lee, a Lexington Republican who is running for attorney general, said he also disagrees with what U of L and UK have done.

"It just struck me as odd about what kind of lesson would they be teaching our young children about marriage," Lee said. "I felt that it was wrong. I felt that the universities of this state " the public universities funded by your tax dollars " should not be in the business of systematically dismantling marriage in this state."

Several other legislators also spoke in favor of the ban.

After hearing about the rally, Frankfort's Melissa Benton, who has a same-sex partner, said, "It is sad that heterosexual marriedpeople can offer health-care benefits to a first, then second or even third wife or husband, while a committed couple of the same gender, in a committed relationship for 10 years, is not provided the same right.

"We should be ashamed of ourselves for this continuous demonstration of hatred to our fellow Kentuckians. I am not asking you to agree with my definition of love or my commitment to my relationship. I am only asking for the same benefits."

Her partner, Jane McCord, said, "I will never understand why the value of my personal relationship is judgedby many to not be as worthy as a married couple's relationship. The love and commitment my partner and Ihave, although not currentlyrecognized by any religious organization or courthouse ruling in this state, is certainly no less if not stronger than those with marriage documentation.

"The proponents of this discrimination are the ones with the agenda by putting us into alose-lose situation. They insist we cannot have such benefits as domestic-partnerhealth insurance because we are not married, knowing full well that is not a possibility here. I could never be so bold or arrogant to make such judgment of others."

Gov. Ernie Fletcher put the domestic-partner issue on the agenda of the special session that began July 5. The Republican-controlled Senate quickly passed McGaha's bill.

But the Democratic-controlled House adjourned on July 5, the day lawmakers reported to Frankfort, saying Fletcher's call of the special session was politically motivated and none of the measures was urgently needed.

With the chambers at odds, Fletcher called for them to take a three-week break and ordered the legislature to return Monday.

But the House didn't vote on the domestic-partner issue Monday, despite the crowd in the rotunda sending a loud, echoing message through the Capitol to House Speaker Jody Richards, saying three times, "Let them vote."

Slone said what UK and U of L have done "is absolutely ridiculous. Even if we leave out the moral standpoint, "it goes against the constitution that everyone in Kentucky voted on. It's just absolutely opposite of everything God would stand for and what I think God would want for us in Kentucky."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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