July 05, 2011 1:51 PM
by Adam Smeltz
State College Area School District officials have formally agreed to end the district’s ban on same-gender domestic-partner benefits, according to a legal agreement signed and filed Tuesday.
The agreement marks a partial settlement of the federal complaint filed against the school district in May. Two plaintiffs — district employee Kerry Wiessmann and her partner, Beth G. Resko — argued through their lawyers that district’s employee-benefits policy was discriminatory.
Specifically, their complaint targeted the district rule that kept school workers’ same-sex domestic partners from qualifying for the same health benefits made available for opposite-sex gender partners. That restriction violated Wiessmann and Resko’s First and Fourteenth Amendment protections under the U.S. Constitution, along with local and state equal-rights provisions, according to their complaint.
Under the agreement finalized Tuesday, school officials have committed to eliminate the same-gender-partner restriction effective immediately. They’ve also agreed to make health benefits available to same-sex domestic partners “on the same terms as SCASD makes these benefits available to the spouses of married employees.”
Further, the agreement notes that the district will adopt, by Aug. 1, new anti-discrimination policies that add clear protections for “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”
The changes were agreed to by a majority of the State College Area school board, according to a news release shared by local attorney Andrew Shubin.
Shubin, who worked with the American Civil Liberties in representing Wiessmann and Resko, said the agreement achieves all of the policy changes the plaintiffs sought.
“It provides for equitable treatment of gay and lesbian staff, and it requires the district to adopt anti-harassment and employment policies that include protections for gay and lesbian staff and students,” Shubin said.
He added: “I’ve been practicing civil-rights law for 20 years, and I can tell you this resolution was forged as quickly as in any other case I’ve been involved in. I’m pleased with the pace and how quickly they moved to make these changes. … I couldn’t be happier.”
A phone message left with the district Tuesday was not immediately answered. The school board has indicated that it does not plan to comment publicly on the litigation. The agreement finalized Tuesday includes signatures of school-board Vice President Jim Pawelczyk, Acting Superintendent Michael Hardy, the plaintiffs, several attorneys and federal Judge John E. Jones III.
“Kerry Wiessmann should not be given second-class benefits simply because her committed relationship is with a person of the same sex,” attorney Steve Harvey, of Pepper Hamilton LLP, said in a news release. “We welcome the district’s decision to bring fairness to the employee-compensation scale.”
Harvey is a cooperating attorney involved in the case.
The agreement finished this week does not fully resolve the legal matter, however. Shubin said the parties are still working through claims for damages and attorneys’ fees in the case. He is hopeful that those claims can be settled “as collaboratively and equitably” as the rest of the case has been, he said.
Last week, Hardy introduced to the school board two new anti-bias policy proposals — one each to ban sexual-orientation- and gender-identity-based discrimination in the schools’ employment practices, and to ban the same in classroom practices.
Approached at the time, Hardy said the proposals were not a direct response to the Wiessmann-Resko litigation; rather, he said, they were written “in response to requests from students, faculty, staff and community members.”
Shubin said Tuesday that the new legal agreement speaks for itself.
He said he knows of no other Pennsylvania school district that provides domestic-, unmarried-partner benefits only to heterosexual couples. Some school districts provide domestic-partner benefits exclusively to homosexual couples, while simultaneously making married-partner benefits available to heterosexual couples who’ve tied the knot, he said.
That practice has been called equitable by the courts because of the legal restrictions on gay marriage, according to Shubin.
“There are many employers who provide benefits to same-sex domestic partners,” he said. ” … State College’s policy was unique.”