Director of women and gender studies Suzanne Scott’s passion for social justice has earned her the respect of her colleagues. But unlike many of her peers, if either Scott or her companion were to become ill and leave the university, she would not be covered by her partner’s insurance. That’s because domestic partner benefits of any kind are illegal under Virginia law, which prevents George Mason University health insurance policies from covering the partners of unmarried employees.
“It is a real hardship for people at Mason that they cannot offer it,” said Scott’s partner, Lynne Constantine, a professor in the School of Art.
“At our ages, especially at my age, that kind of security is important,” Scott said.
For many years, health insurance coverage for the couple’s children had hinged upon Scott’s employment at Mason. Although Constantine is for all other purposes a mother of four children, Scott is their biological parent. Constantine cannot adopt them because Virginia law only allows for the spouse of a birth parent to adopt a child. In Virginia, both gay marriage and gay adoption are llegal. This means that if Scott’s health insurance were to be terminated, Constantine’s insurance could not be extended to their children.
The couple’s health insurance situation would be even worse if they were not both faculty members. Gay professors who are not faculty members have to buy additional coverage for their partners.
The pair does not blame the university for their situation.
“I want to be very clear,” Constantine said. “George Mason University would do it if they could.”
The matter is frequently brought up in Faculty Senate meetings and has support from senior members of the university administration.
“I believe it’s the right thing to do,” said Peter Stearns, provost and vice president of academic affairs. “It would be beneficial for us [to offer same-sex couples benefits] because it would help to recruit better talent to the university.”
This argument has been made before. In the 2008 Virginia legislative session, Virginia State Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-31st) proposed a bill that would extend health coverage to domestic partners. Supporters of the bill argued that extending health benefits to same-sex couples would help recruit the best candidates for jobs in competitive markets such as Northern Virginia. That legislation failed in the Virginia General Assembly.
“It’s obvious that many corporations have extended those benefits [to same-sex partners],” Stearns said. “It would be very desirable for George Mason to do the same.”
There is no legislation that explicitly bans health insurance policies from applying to same-sex couples, but two existing laws combine to make it illegal. One is the federal Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996, which prevents federal recognition of same-sex marriages. The other is the Marshall-Newman Amendment, passed by Virginia legislature in 2006. This bill amended the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which founding father George Mason helped draft in 1776, to define all unions, including marriage, as between a man and a woman.
In Fairfax County, where the cost of living index is 19 points ahead of the national average, Mason faculty who cannot receive the full benefits package are at an economic disadvantage.
“Part of the way that the university makes up for our salaries not being competitive is a pretty decent benefit package,” Constantine said.
Full-time faculty salaries at Mason are ranked at the third percentile among self-defined peer institutions, according to Institutional Research and Reporting. The State Council for Higher Education for Virginia has made it a goal to reach the 60th percentile among peer institutions