University of Pittsburgh Challenges City Ban on Gay Discrimination

February 5, 1999 12:00 am

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ACLU News Wire: February 5, 1999– University of Pittsburgh Challenges City Ban on Gay Discrimination

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Deborah M. Henson, a legal writing instructor, left the University of Pittsburgh nearly three years ago. But the legal battle over the University’s denial of spousal benefits for her lesbian domestic partner continues, according to local news reports.

Henson’s lawyers — including attorneys from the national and state offices of the American Civil Liberties Union — filed a brief last week with the Pittsburgh commission on Human Relations, opposing a motion by Pitt (as the University is known ) last November to dismiss Henson’s claim. The ACLU is also representing two other unnamed individuals, both current employees at the university.

In denying health benefits to her partner, Henson alleges, the University violated the Pittsburgh Human Relations Act, which prohibits discrimination in employment, including discrimination in compensation on the basis of sexual orientation.

Pitt attorneys argue (among other things) that Pennsylvania municipalities lack the legal authority to pass anti-discrimination laws adding sexual orientation to the list of “protected categories” mandated by state law, the University Times reports.

The ACLU counters that the law involving sexual orientation is valid and that only a small number of employers would likely be affected by a ruling favoring Henson. In interviews with the Post-Gazette, ACLU leaders accused Pitt of attacking the only form of protection from discrimination given to gays and lesbians in the state.

“It’s like pointing a nuclear warhead at the gay community in order to avoid paying a few people benefits,” said Christine Biancheria, a volunteer attorney on behalf of the ACLU of Pittsburgh, which filed the case along with the National ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.

A ruling favoring the university could jeopardize sexual orientation protections passed in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, State College, Lancaster, York, and Oxford and Northhampton County, said Vic Walczak, the ACLU’s Pittsburgh director.

According to the Post-Gazette, the city Human Relations Commission ruled earlier that there was probable cause that the university had discriminated against Henson.

Leslie Cooper, a staff attorney wit the ACLU’s national Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, told the University Times that Pitt’s legal strategy was “offensive” because the University “is challenging the sovereignty of the cites of Pennsylvania, as well as attempting to dismantle the legal protections those cities offer to lesbian and gay people.”

In a front-page story on the lawsuit, featuring the banner headline “Pittiful,” Planet Q, a local lesbian and gay newspaper, said that one Pitt official voted against the benefits because they were “a special reward for being homosexual, and I’m totally against it.”

The ACLU has prepared a “Question and Answer” sheet about the case, available at /issues/gay/henson_factsheet.html.

Sources: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 4, 1999
University Times, February 4, 1999
Planet Q, February 1999 Vol 6., No. 2

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