Chancellors Jimmy Cheek and Larry Arrington have issued a new, official response regarding the provision of benefits to the homosexual and heterosexual domestic partners of UT, and the answer is still no.
In a nutshell, Cheek and Arrington's reasoning is that UT is a publicly funded state institution and therefore must comply with state law.Cheek and Arrington state this because UT's various insurance plans are provided through the state group insurance plan, which is given through the State Insurance Committee. The provided insurance plan includes health, dental, vision, pharmacy, long-term care and life insurances, as well as access to the Employee Assistance Program.
Their letter then says that, "Extending these benefits to a broader class of persons is not a viable option for the University because of Tennessee Code Annotated § 8-27-201(c) expressly provides that 'the group insurance plan (approved by the State Insurance Committee) shall be the only such approved plan for state employees.'"
In consideration of that code, the letter continues that UT "does not have authority to extend coverage provided by the state group insurance plan or to establish a separate insurance plan for University employees."
In regard to "the other benefits" — which may refer to bereavement leave, discounts to football tickets, and other benefits provided to spouses of UT faculty which Faculty Senate suggested in its original resolution — Cheek and Arrington's letter alluded to Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-3-113, which states that marriage is a "relationship of one (1) man and one (1) woman."
Furthermore, they state that "Any policy or law or judicial interpretation, purporting to define marriage as anything other than the ... legal contract between one (1) man and one (1) woman, is contrary to the public policy of ... Tennessee.
"These statutory and constitutional provisions are the basis of our conclusion that the operative clauses of the Faculty Senate resolution are inconsistent with the public policy of Tennessee," the statement continues.
The letter also states that UT System President Joe DiPietro had been notified of the issue and that he, too, believed that "... UT is not in a position to pursue domestic partners at this time."
The response from those involved with Faculty Senate and the LGBT community has not been positive about this letter.Keith Kirkland, general manager at the Clarence Brown Theatre and chair for the Commission for LGBT People, was not pleased, nor did he agree with the chancellors' reasoning.
"Honestly I wasn't surprised by the response," Kirkland said. "My first reaction was 'why did it take you so long to formulate this response when this is what I was expecting to see 75 days ago.'"
Kirkland wrote, on behalf of the Commission for LGBT People, an open letter responding to Cheek and Arrington's first letter. With this new one released Wednesday, Kirkland plans to write a second response of his own.
Kirkland doesn't believe that the provisions of the state statutes are enough to stop the university from at least trying to get some benefits. He argued that UT could go before the State Insurance Committee to ask for them to extend the benefits out to domestic partners.
"That still gives the state board the ability to deny that, of course, but at least then the university would be listening to its employees and acting on their behalf and in their stead," Kirkland said.
Kirkland is not the only one upset about the letter. Donna Braquet, associate professor and coordinator at the LGBT OUTreach Center, was very disappointed.
"Really, to tell you the truth, my heart just really sank when I was reading the letter," Braquet said. "This is my employer, the organization I work hard for everyday. And it felt like I was being told 'you don't matter, you're not worth the risk and would you please go somewhere else.'"
Braquet is also one of the researchers that worked on the original Faculty Senate resolution that Cheek and Arrington were responding to. She is also a leading figure with the Benefit Equality Campaign, which has coordinator meetings and events trying to push the discussion on getting benefits for domestic partners.
Now with a new response from the administration, Braquet is not sure what their next move will be, but the campaign will be meeting again at 6 p.m. on Jan. 31 in the OUTreach Center. Braquet said anyone can attend the meeting.
The Chancellor's Office did not have an immediate response regarding the letter or the subject of domestic partner benefits in general at the time of print. They plan to talk with The Daily Beacon in the near future.