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Treat others as we desire to be treated

Julia Marvin | Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Overt harassment is far from the only difficulty faced by non-heterosexual people at Notre Dame. Workplace discrimination against non-heterosexual employees is a fact of life here.

Notre Dame offers employees non-wage “family” benefits – health and life insurance, tuition benefits, widow and widower benefits, family medical leave, parental leave, access to athletic facilities, etc. This is provided that the non-employee spouse is “a husband or wife as defined or recognized by the State of Indiana,” and any children are biological “children, step-children [or] children under legal guardianship,” according to the Notre Dame Human Resources website. Since same-sex marriage is not yet legally available in Indiana, and legal parental status is often unavailable to a non-biological parent, employees in same-sex relationships are denied the benefits awarded by Notre Dame to married employees, even though their circumstances may be analogous in every way.

That is, one employee with dependents may be exposed to much more risk, and be effectively paid thousands of dollars less each year, than another employee with dependents in exactly the same job, at exactly the same wages.

A few scenarios may help clarify the consequences of this policy. Imagine John and Joan, a married couple with two small children and no connection to Notre Dame, and Mary, a long-time Notre Dame employee.

1. John and Joan die in an accident. Their old friend Mary becomes legal guardian of the children, who become eligible for health insurance and Notre Dame tuition benefits.

2. Joan dies. John later meets Mary. They fall in love and marry, and he and the children become eligible for all Notre Dame benefits.

3. John dies. Joan later meets Mary. They fall in love, and vow lifelong commitment to each other. If an Indiana judge is willing to grant Mary a second-parent adoption, the children may become eligible for Notre Dame benefits. Joan remains ineligible no matter what.

4. John abandons his family and divorces Joan but doesn’t surrender his legal parental status. Joan later meets Mary. They fall in love, and vow lifelong commitment. Mary has no way to get legal parental-status. Neither Joan nor the children are eligible for Notre Dame benefits.

To continue this last scenario: doing without health insurance and avoiding the expense of doctor visits, Joan learns too late that she has cancer. The medical bills, uncovered by insurance, drive Joan and Mary into bankruptcy. Mary can’t afford to quit her Notre Dame job, and she can’t get family leave to be with Joan while she is dying. Notre Dame won’t cover counseling for the children, either.

Had Mary married John, and John were the person who developed cancer, all Notre Dame benefits would of course have been available, to him and the children. Note that in all of these scenarios, the identity of the Notre Dame employee, Mary, doesn’t change, and neither does that of the children to whom she becomes a parent, who under some circumstances will be eligible for benefits, and under others, won’t. All that changes are the legal ramifications of different combinations of facts about Mary’s mate: male or female, widowed or divorced. The award or denial of employment-based benefits here has nothing to do with the individual employee, but with the gender and marital history of her partner. Does this seem just?

One response might be that Notre Dame should deny benefits to employees with same-sex partners because the Catholic Church disapproves of homosexuality, or at least of homosexual activity (although all the couples hypothesized above could be celibate life partners, and it wouldn’t affect their benefits). The Church also disapproves of such things as fornication, divorce and atheism, but Notre Dame does not deny benefits to employees or their dependents because of them.

Since same-sex couples have yet to achieve legal recognition here, the University is within its legal rights in refusing them recognition itself. The most obvious reason for it to cling to the current, limited, nondiscrimination clause is to guard against obligating itself to anything more than the law now requires, in this area and others. To do no more than the law now requires: is that the standard to which we aspire?

Before 1965, marriage between blacks and whites was illegal in Indiana – automatically void, and punishable by fines and up to 10 years’ imprisonment. Officiants at such marriages were also prosecutable. Notre Dame would have been simply following the law if it refused to recognize the marriage of a black employee to a white spouse because they were not husband and wife “as defined or recognized by the State of Indiana.” It could have forbidden the celebration of mixed-race marriages on campus. Did this happen, even while Fr. Hesburgh was serving on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights? I don’t know, but I hope not.

The law may still permit discrimination against same-sex couples, but many organizations, including Catholic institutions such as DePaul, Georgetown, Fordham and Boston College, offer them the same benefits as married opposite-sex couples receive – and were already doing so before some of their jurisdictions legalized same-sex marriage. It is perfectly possible to consider homosexual practice sinful without condoning inequitable compensation for Notre Dame employees who cannot yet legally marry their mates.

In denying equal pay for equal work and ostracizing some of its families, the University’s standard practice seems far from the “Spirit of Inclusion”:

“We welcome all … precisely because of Christ’s calling to treat others as we desire to be treated. We value gay and lesbian members of this community as we value all members of this community … We consciously create an environment of mutual respect, hospitality and warmth in which none are strangers and all may flourish.”

I invite a substantive public response from the administration of the University.

Julia Marvin is an associate professor in the Program of Liberal Studies. She can be reached at

[email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.