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February 2014

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DNR: JMU tied to state law

Alger Addresses Same-Sex Partner Benefits At Faculty Senate Meeting

February 28, 2014
By KASSONDRA CLOOS
Reposted with permission from the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record

HARRISONBURG — It's against state law for James Madison University, a public institution, to offer same-sex domestic partner benefits to its employees.

In December, a Faculty Senate resolution recommending the university begin offering those benefits passed with all yeas and one abstention.

Virginia law on the matter could change depending on the outcome of a legal challenge to the commonwealth's ban on same-sex marriage. A federal judge in Norfolk ruled on Feb. 13 that the state's same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional, but so far, that has not paved the way for gay couples to get married legally within Virginia.

The marriage issue, which is being fought in the courts in a number of states, likely won't be settled until the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in.

On Thursday, JMU President Jonathan Alger addressed the issue of same-sex domestic partner benefits before the Faculty Senate, saying that the university is working collectively with the offices of Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark Herring, as well as with other state college presidents, to determine how that restriction might change.

"It's certainly an issue we're also paying attention to. There's a lot of national dialogue on this conversation right now," Alger said. "It's an issue of competitiveness as well as of civil rights in our society and it certainly affects us as we try to recruit and maintain the best talent that we can.

"We understand that there are peer institutions in a lot of states, as well as a lot of corporations, that are already doing this, and we certainly want to have an environment that is welcoming and inclusive."

One professor, Kevin Giovanetti, asked Alger during the meeting whether JMU had plans to provide any sort of "under-the-rug" benefits for same-sex domestic partners while Virginia waits on a final ruling on the commonwealth's gay-marriage ban.

"Is anybody here thinking to themselves, 'Is there a way to award those benefits?' Is somebody really thinking hard ... 'Could we give them a few benefits?'" Giovanetti asked. "There's other things we could give besides medical."

Faculty Senate Speaker David McGraw stopped Alger before he answered the question, saying the president already addressed the issue and it would put him in an awkward spot as a state official. Alger told Giovanetti that he would be happy to speak with him "offline" about the issue.

Even if Virginia were to pass a law tomorrow that made same-sex marriage legal, JMU would not be able to offer benefits to those couples overnight. Alger cannot make that decision on his own, either; the university's board of visitors, which consists of governor-appointed officials, oversees and votes on those kinds of changes.

McGraw, speaking after the meeting, expressed an understanding of the administration's position.

"The legal landscape is changing, rapidly, but as we understand the legal landscape right now, [Alger] has to abide by the law and the law is that the university cannot give same-sex domestic partner benefits," he said. "So, he's monitoring that situation, he's paying attention to the issue, but he really can't get down into the nuts and bolts of what his personal opinion is."

Contact Kassondra Cloos at 574-6290 or kcloos@dnronline.com.








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