By Tami Fitzgerald
Christian Action League
County Commissioners in Mecklenburg County will be voting on December 15th on whether to offer domestic partner benefits to the same-sex partners of county employees, just as married spouses are offered health and dental insurance benefits.
In January, the Democrat majority of the Mecklenburg County Commissioners asked staff to study the legalities of offering domestic partner benefits to employees. The staff referred the matter to the UNC School of Government which produced a report recommending that local governments have broad enough authority under state law to offer domestic partner benefits.
The new report, written by professor Diane Juffras who specializes in public employment law, said statutes allow local governments to buy insurance and other benefits for employees and dependents, as well as create policies to “foster the hiring and retention of a capable and diligent work force.” Given that, she wrote, “it is reasonable to conclude that cities, counties, and other local government entities may choose to offer domestic partner benefits as a recruiting and retention tool.” Dr. Juffras’ article is published in the UNC School of Government’s Public Employment Law Bulletin.
Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones reported on his website on November 20th that the legal counsel to the County was working with Dr. Juffras to reach a legal recommendation at the same time the County’s Human Resources staff was researching all other (non-legal) aspects of offering domestic partner benefits. This includes options for defining domestic partners, impact on benefit administration, potential cost implications and the projected effect on recruitment and retention.
“Domestic partners” are often defined as two individuals who are in a long-term committed relationship and are responsible for each other’s financial and emotional well-being. The status of such a relationship is not determined by the existence of a marriage license, as is the status of married couples. Domestic partners are largely homosexual couples. Employers can create their own definitions of “domestic partner” for the purposes of benefits eligibility, although they increasingly allow government-based recognition of same-sex relationships to satisfy their requirements. That is what makes the recognition of domestic partners by a County Government so problematic—North Carolina law does not afford any legal status to domestic partners.
Health and Dental benefits are traditionally offered to an employee and his or her opposite-sex spouse and children, although an ever-growing number of private employers, including many Fortune 500 companies, extend these benefits to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees and their domestic partners. Bill James (R-District 6), a Mecklenburg County Commissioner, explains in a recent email to constituents that in states that afford legal recognition to domestic partners or same-sex marriages, large companies are required by law to offer domestic partner benefits. Those companies must apply their benefits policies equally in all the locations in which they do business, even if other local governments do not require recognition of domestic partners or same-sex marriages. However, state and local governments are not required to offer benefits to same-sex partners if they do not legally recognize same-sex relationships.
Commissioner James criticized offering domestic partner benefits because he said that North Carolina’s statute that prohibits crimes against nature makes homosexual behavior illegal, and that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas only recognizes Constitutional protection for private consensual sex between homosexuals. He argued that having a County governmental unit afford public recognition to homosexual behavior violates the crimes against nature statute. “People always get into trouble when they spend time trying to skirt the law and Mecklenburg County is headed in that direction. Marriage in NC is ‘one man-one woman’. Offering Domestic Partner insurance ignores and undermines the law while using the don’t ask-don’t tell approach that most homosexuals oppose at the Federal level,” Commissioner James said.