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Over the past few months, the gay rights movement has come of middle age. Gay people are now demanding the right to civil marriage and claiming the privileges and responsibilities that go with that legally binding contract.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court has told the legislature that there is nothing in the state constitution that precludes applying equal protection to same sex couples, including the right to marry. Watching their television sets recently, Americans have seen gay people getting married in San Francisco and a number of other towns across the country.

But a national survey conducted by The Credit Union Journal found just two state credit union leagues offers benefits to same-sex partners; the vast majority of those contacted said they offer no such benefits-indeed, most said the issue has not even been discussed.

Outside of credit unions, one study has found that 212 of the Fortune 500 companies offer domestic partnership benefits, and that 7,023 employers of record (and growing) offer coverage to the domestic partners of both their gay and heterosexual employees. "It makes good business sense," said Daryl Herrschaft, deputy director for the Workplace Project of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights organization.

"Major financial institutions in the United States have been very proactive in instituting domestic partnership benefits. It's not just about being fair to employees in same-sex relationships and heterosexuals in similarly committed relationships, it really does make good business sense," said Herrschaft. (For a list of companies providing such benefits, see www.hrc.com).

'This Is A Small League...And We'd Know'

Yet, when asked to provide answers about whether they provide such coverage the sound from most credit union leagues was silence. Most simply did not answer the survey, "Never been asked," several said in response to the survey, which was conducted over several weeks, via telephone, fax and e-mail.

"We don't have any gay employees," answered one league spokesperson. when asked if such benefits might be considered in the future, the response was "This is a small league, and we'd know something like that."

Would it make a difference if they knew there was a gay employee? "I don't know," was the answer. That same league does not include protection for discrimination based on sexual orientation, but does forbid it based on sex, race, creed and national origin.

One league spokesman accused this reporter of "trying to create a controversy or issue where none exists."

Perhaps it is preferable to avoid discussion of politically charged topics, but current events have shown that approach cannot last. There are of course, openly gay employees working in the credit union movement, but none of them would speak on the record for this story. Off the record, one noted that "a quiet acceptance" is the order of the day.

"No one wants to rock the boat. We do our jobs and most people accept us," the person told The Credit Union Journal. "They simply avoid talking about the 'gay' thing. These are conservative people. One on one, they are very tolerant, but it may be very different when they talk about gays as a group, or even as a political force."

The Credit Union National Association, (CUNA) does not provide domestic partnership benefits, said spokesperson Pat Keefe, nor does it have a specific policy that addresses discrimination against homosexual employees.

"All employees, regardless of their sexual orientation, are covered under our policy of non-discrimination," Keefe stressed. "In addition, we are an equal opportunity employer and this is supported in our policies relating to all employment actions."

As to whether such benefits may be offered in the future, Keefe said, "We have had some discussion over the years with benefit providers about integrating 'partner' benefits, as there are benefits for 'married' couples."

CUNA affiliates (the leagues) are separate entities, Keefe noted, and as such set their own policies. Still, some leagues and/or CU organizations or credit unions could not offer such benefits even if they wanted to, as state law forbids it, even as some states mandate it. That's true in Virginia, where the Virginia Bureau of Insurance has refused to allow companies chartered in Virginia to offer domestic partner health insurance benefits to anyone other than an employee's spouse or dependent child. Even if the organization finds an insurer willing to write such a policy, the only exceptions have been made for companies that are self-insured or companies based in other states that have facilities in Virginia but are using an insurance carrier that is not based in Virginia.

9/11 Lessons Learned

New York State wrestled with domestic partnership rights following the attacks on the World Trade Center, passing several laws to help people whose partners were killed on 9/11. In May, 2001, New York State enacted a law making it easier for same-sex partners to receive workers' compensation and relief from the victims' compensation fund and making domestic partners of firefighters who died there eligible for accidental death benefits and health benefits. Gov. George Pataki signed these related bills. The state of Virginia passed no similar laws for survivors of the Pentagon attack.

Mary Ann Bourgeois, vice president of human resources for the New York CU League, said the league does not currently offer domestic partnership benefits and does not contemplate doing so at this time. Bourgeois acknowledged, however, that New York State law prohibits workplace discrimination based on sexual preference. It remains legal in 37 states to discriminate in the workplace based on sexual orientation.

Several leagues did say that they might think about offering such benefits, including the Illinois CU League, which doesn't offer them now.

"We have never been asked by any of our employees for this type of benefit, but would re-evaluate the issue if it were brought to our attention that it was needed," said Vicki Lyn Ponzo, senior vice president. The league does not yet include a policy that extends employment protection based on sexual orientation.

A spokesperson for the Alabama CU league noted that it had "one of the best benefit packages, comparable by size, with other leagues." Although the ACUL has no domestic partnership policy and has never been asked by an employee about such benefits, "if an employee asked, we'd give it thorough consideration," she said.

The Arizona CU League reported it has no plans to consider domestic partnership benefits, while the Colorado CU League indicated the topic was certainly open for discussion.

The Florida CU League doesn't plan to extend such coverage, said a spokesperson. (Florida law bans gay marriage, civil unions and gay adoption specifically. Many cities and counties ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, including Broward, Palm Beach, Monroe and Miami-Dade Counties; Gainesville, Miami Beach, Orlando, Sarasota, St. Petersburg and Tampa. )

The Iowa Credit Union League is "committed to the principles of equal employment opportunity," said spokesman Patrick Jury. "We believe our long-term success depends on the effective utilization of individuals qualified to perform the job. We recruit, train, hire, compensate, and promote based on job performance. Obviously, all of our employees are entitled to a working environment free of harassment and intimidation for any reason. We do not have a specific policy relating to the employment and/or treatment of homosexuals. Iowa state law does not recognize same sex marriage; therefore it is not a component of our insurance coverage. We do not have a plan to initiate such a policy."

The Ohio legislature passed a law in February barring state agencies from giving benefits to both gay and heterosexual domestic partners. It was the 38th state to do so. The Ohio bill is modeled on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) passed in 1996 and signed by President Bill Clinton. The law also prohibits the recognition of any marriage or civil union from another state or country (currently only Canada, Belgium and the Netherlands permit gay marriage.)

Where There Is Support

The sole exception among the leagues is California, which does provide domestic partnership benefits, and that applies to Nevada, as well. President David Chatfield said that decision predated any legal requirement. "I'm not surprised that we're among the first, but for us it's nothing new. I don't think of it as a political issue, I think it's the price of inclusion, which is part of credit union philosophy." Chatfield's remarks came before San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom started issuing same-sex marriage licenses and conducting marriages on the steps of City Hall.

"I can't presume to tell anyone else what to do, of course, but here we practice and celebrate diversity- all the time," said Chatfield. Has there been any adverse reaction? "None at all. Here in California we see diversity all around us and we accept it. It makes California different," he said. "That's the kind of organization we have here at the league, inclusive from top to bottom."

What about cost? "We considered all expenses -the cost versus the benefit- and it has simply not been significant. We looked at it carefully, and the cost of extending these benefits has not been significant."

Studies have shown the cost of such coverage is a 1%-2% increase overall.

"The California Credit Union League has a long-standing and positive commitment to provide equal employment opportunity regardless of race, creed, color, age, religion, national origin, ancestry, medical condition, physical or mental disability, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, age, veteran status, or any other basis prohibited by law," said CCUL spokesperson Mark Lowe.

CCUL provides a full range of employee benefits to domestic partners, including health and long-term disability insurance, to the same extent as those offered to married partners, regardless of the sex or sexual orientation of domestic partners.

The league does not make recommendations about specific personnel polices to member credit unions but does give CUs information about what state and federal law requires of them. In addition, the league publishes a Diversity Resource Guide, first produced in 1996, which encourages credit unions to understand the needs of diverse groups within the community, and to provide services that meet those needs. The guide lists a variety of groups, including domestic partners, which are served by credit unions in communities throughout California and Nevada.

In Hawaii, the state league also provides domestic partnership benefits to employees. A HCUL spokesperson said that state law requires benefits to "reciprocal beneficiaries" registered with the state and certified as domestic partners. The benefits must be the same as those provided to married spouses.(In November 1998, Hawaii voters passed a constitutional amendment giving the state legislature the power to make gay marriage illegal even as the Hawaii Supreme Court was scheduled to hear a gay marriage case. The amendment passed on a 2-1 margin; the court passed on the case, but noted that the state had no legitimate reason to exclude same-sex couples from marriage.

In Vermont, the Supreme Court ruled in December 1999 that same-sex couples must receive the same benefits and protections as married heterosexuals, urging the legislature to legalize gay marriage. The legislature passed a civil union law instead, which was signed by then-Governor Howard Dean in April 2000.

CUNA Mutual's Policy

CUNA Mutual Group, Madison, Wis., also provides coverage, and claims it proudly, yet without waving a banner of any kind. "CUNA Mutual is an equal opportunity employer. It is our policy to recognize and protect a culture which values the unique abilities of each employee," said a statement provided by spokesperson Phillip Tschudy.

"Differences are respected and encouraged," the statement read. "Diversity enhances teamwork and heightens productivity. The contributions of each individual are invited and differences in race, color, gender, ethnicity, religion, physical attributes, level differences and lifestyle are welcomed. Therefore, it is our practice to recruit, hire and promote all positions of employment, regardless of race, color, religion, sex, sexual preference, disability, age, national origin, or other status protected by applicable federal, state or local law."

CUNA Mutual implemented a domestic partners policy in January 2002. Domestic partners are considered to be the equivalent of a "spouse" under CUNA Mutual policy and are subject to the same terms, conditions and limitations for coverage as a "spouse." A domestic partner may be either sex.

Tschudy added that CUNA Mutual was the first large private employer in Dane County (CUNA Mutual is third largest employer) to establish a policy providing domestic partners of gay and lesbian employees the opportunity to access company-sponsored health insurance because of their relationship with that employee.

In addition, since 1977, CUNA Mutual has granted bereavement leave with pay for the death of a domestic partner. The leave is the same as for the death of a spouse - up to three excused paid days.

That clearly makes CUNA Mutual among the most progressive credit union organizations with respect to domestic partners, both gay and straight.

And CUNA Mutual's policy extends to all the companies of CUNA Mutual Group under its benefit programs.

Helps Attract Workforce

CEO Mike Kitchen provided this explanation: "At CUNA Mutual Group, respecting and valuing diversity is simply the way we do business. We want to attract and retain the most highly skilled work force as possible to best serve credit unions and their members. One of the ways we accomplish this is by offering an industry-leading benefits package."

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