Toledo--A group of University of Toledo students, faculty, staff and their supporters staged a protest during the February 23 board of trustees meeting, pushing for domestic partner benefits for university employees.
Forty students entered the meeting room and stood silently, with their mouths duct-taped shut. When the board chair adjourned the meeting, the protesters hummed the national anthem, then left. The meeting was reconvened, and trustees approved a nine percent tuition hike.
This was the second time in the last three months that the board of trustees has faced protest over the issue of domestic partner benefits, which the board dropped from contract negotiations after voters passed Issue 1 last fall.
The issue amended the Ohio constitution to bar recognition of same-sex marriage and anything else �that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance or effect of marriage.�
Before it passed, opponents warned that it could have unexpected consequences. The amendment is already being used to challenge domestic violence laws in cases of unmarried opposite-sex couples.
The University of Toledo board of trustees argues that it cannot afford to defend domestic partner benefits against a legal challenge based on the amendment.
However, Sue Carter of the American Civil Liberties Union was prepared to offer her organization�s support in defending the university against a suit filed if the board passed the benefits. She was one of three speakers denied a spot on the February 23 agenda.
The other two were law student Michelle Stecker, whose partner is a university employee, and Toledo City Council president Louis Escobar, the interim director of the school�s multicultural center.
Escobar, who remained outside the meeting room, was denied condolence leave when his partner�s mother died.
He is not the only university employee taking issue with the lack of domestic partner benefits at the school, however.
Prof. Greg Stone of the School of Education filed a grievance with the university, claiming that denying his partner benefits violates the �full faith and credit� clause of the United States Constitution.
Stone and Stewart Swanson were married in Massachusetts after the start of full same-sex marriage in that state. Stone argues that by refusing to recognize his marriage, the school is violating the Constitution and their contract with the American Association of University Professors, which prohibits the school from violating state or federal law.
His grievance, filed in November, was rejected on February 1. It is now in mediation.
Stone has indicated that he might file suit against the university, a case against which the ACLU would not defend it.
�I�m willing to accept domestic partner benefits, even though they�re not equal,� he said, noting that he would have to pay income tax on them.
Currently, Swanson, who is self-employed, pays $5,000 a year for health insurance.
The AAUP, the Communications Workers of America and AFSCME-OCSEA, the three unions representing faculty and staff at the university, have been pressing for domestic partner benefits for over a decade. The board of trustees was entertaining the idea until the marriage ban amendment passed, when they pulled the benefits from negotiations.
Students were present at the December 15 finance committee meeting to press for the benefits, and returned the following week for the December 22 general meeting.
Speakers were put on the agenda for that meeting and gave presentations on the benefits. University president Dan Johnson wore a ribbon expressing his support for their cause, but the board of trustees told them that the point was moot under the amendment.
Ashley Nickel, a member of Spectrum, the UT gay-straight alliance, gave a speech at the December 22 meeting, along with fellow Spectrum representative Evan Morrison.
During her speech, Nickel called board chair Daniel J. Brennan to task for his opposition to domestic partner benefits.
�Wasn�t it you, Chair Brennan, who said, �Our faculty members are our best asset, and the board welcomes their continued participation working with the president and the administration in setting the course for the future of the university?� � she asked. �Our mission statement claims an environment that cultivates respect for individuals and freedom of expression. If our faculty feels disenfranchised by this university�s administrative decisions, this creates a chasm between the faculty and administration and a hostile environment for the faculty and students.�
According to Nickel, Johnson has advised protesters to call Brennan, a former chair of the Republican Party of Lucas County.
Brennan did not respond to attempts to contact him for this story.
Nickel also noted that the board, with Brennan at the head, rejected an effort last November to add sexual orientation and gender to the school�s sexual harassment policy.
Supporters of the benefits decided to take their case directly to the board because, �We could not be a passive generation any more,� she said, describing Brennan�s reasoning as �empty rhetoric in our eyes.�
She said the efforts will continue, since the board of trustees have all but ignored a student senate resolution passed one week after Issue 1 was approved by the voters, expressing continued support for domestic partner benefits.
�We don�t want them to think this is it, because it�s not,� she said.
�We are trying to encourage them to think differently,� Morrison noted.
Johnson noted that there is a �relative cost on either side,� but does not believe the board is aware of the possibility of a lawsuit from Stone.
�The board continues to study the issue in light of Issue 1,� he said, noting, �The board understands my position on this.�
Of the 16 four-year state universities in Ohio, five currently offer domestic partner benefits: Ohio State University, Cleveland State, Youngstown State, Miami University and Ohio University.
Last year, Miami and Ohio Universities delivered a one-two punch by releasing statements in conjunction with each other that they were extending the benefits. Cleveland State University�s contracts with employees stipulate that any benefit granted by another state university will be mirrored there, making their extension of domestic partner benefits automatic.
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