The "Catholic Issue"

A debate at USF over domestic partner benefits is complicated by the school's ties to the church

For the past two years, sociology professor Nicole Raeburn has been arguing that the University of San Francisco should become the country's first Jesuit college to extend domestic partner benefits to its faculty, staff, and administrators. And on a recent afternoon in her cramped office, after the amiable, bookish Raeburn has finished fielding questions from a steady stream of students, she admits the argument has become especially personal -- because she's nine months pregnant and expecting to give birth any day.

"If Liz, my partner, were the one having the baby instead of me, the official policy would be to turn their backs on the baby," says Raeburn, her voice as cheery as it is firm. "And that just pisses me off."

She's not the only one. Her fellow members of USF Pride, a 5-year-old alliance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender faculty and staff, have quietly advanced a proposal for domestic partner benefits through the highest levels of the administration, where a joint committee is now studying the issue. And it's a touchy one, as the university tries to strike a balance between the widely disparate views on homosexuality held by its city and its church.

Raeburn and her colleagues argue that because benefits can comprise as much as 40 percent of an employee's compensation, the university's current policy amounts to unequal pay for equal work. Offering domestic partner benefits, Raeburn says, would boost the university's benefits budget by only about 1 percent.

But the issue is less about numbers than about symbolism. Several local Catholic institutions began offering some form of equitable benefits following San Francisco's landmark 1997 ordinance, which required all businesses contracting with the city to offer benefits to same-sex partners if they offered them to married couples. But USF would be the first of the nation's 28 Jesuit colleges and universities to do so, and the school has come under fire recently from Catholic critics. They charge that USF's president, Stephen Privett, is trying to "liberalize" the school, a controversy that began when Privett fired the leaders of the university's St. Ignatius Institute, a conservative program whose curriculum is based on classic literature, which Privett described as "too isolationist."

Against this backdrop, Raeburn and environmental science professor Jack Lendvay have led USF Pride's two-year campaign for equitable benefits. They have gained the support of the student government and, more important, the faculty association, which requested that domestic partner benefits be included in this year's contract.

Although the faculty union didn't get that stipulation, the university did agree to form a six-person joint committee of faculty and administrators to examine the "financial and institutional issues" of domestic partner benefits. The committee is due to produce a final recommendation to the board of trustees by next February, but Raeburn and Lendvay -- two of the faculty's representatives on the joint committee -- say they hope to make a proposal ahead of the university's timetable.

"We've already done all the homework," Raeburn says. "Now it's feeling like there's some stalling going on. I have to believe they're doing this in good faith, that it's not just a stall tactic. But I also hope they don't say, 'It's going to take another year [to decide].' We've done two years of homework -- why would they have to wait another year?"

One possible reason: to gauge the potential of a conservative Catholic backlash. Although Lendvay points out that the Catholic Church has no official position on equitable benefits, he also suspects that the "Catholic issue" is the primary obstacle between USF and a domestic partner policy.

"There are lots of different writings from clergy and theologians on equitable benefits, homosexuality, and other gay and lesbian issues, and there are many who are very open to this," Lendvay says. "We're not breaking ground as far as the Catholic Church goes, but we may be leading the curve."

Indeed, there's already one Catholic university in the area that offers domestic partner benefits: the Dominican University of California, located in San Rafael. Administrators wrote equitable benefits into the employee handbook about five years ago, because "they felt it was the right thing to do," says spokeswoman Carol Harbers, who adds: "In my four years here, I can remember one alumnus complaining about it, but that's it."

The final decision for USF rests with the university's board of trustees, which, according to Vice Chair Maureen Clark, has yet to formally debate the issue. She says the joint committee isn't a stall tactic but a way to explore the terminology, scope, and logistics of USF Pride's proposal. And while Clark says she hasn't heard any conservative Catholic murmuring, she admits the issue is a divisive one.

"No matter what we do, there are going to be people who are unhappy," Clark says. "I have been trying to figure out if there's a solution that will satisfy everyone, and if there's one out there, I haven't found it yet. This is one of those things that people feel strongly and differently about, but you can't use that as an excuse for doing nothing."

USF's student population, meanwhile, has begun mobilizing in favor of its faculty. The student government sent a letter of support to the board of trustees in December, and students are planning a petition drive next fall. Mary Abler, a sophomore who is heading up the petition effort, says she believes all but a handful of USF students will lend their signatures to the cause.

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