December 12, 2007

New try on ban of partner benefits

By Ryan Alessi

Lexington, KY -- Two Democratic state lawmakers are dredging up a controversial proposal to block public universities in Kentucky from extending health benefits to unmarried, live-in partners of the institutions' employees.

The move by state Reps. Richard Henderson of Jeffersonville and Ancel Smith of Leburn already has raised eyebrows among members of their own party -- especially considering that new Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear has repeatedly promised to veto any such bills.

"I had expected it but not from those two," said Representative Tom Burch, D-Louisville. "I expected it from Republicans."

Sixteen other Democratic lawmakers have signed on to the bill, which Henderson and Smith pre-filed yesterday in preparation for the upcoming General Assembly session that begins Jan. 8.

Both Henderson and Smith said they've received pressure from constituents to block universities that receive public funding from offering such domestic partnership benefits.

"I live in an ultraconservative district with 150 churches," Henderson said. "Between 1,200 and 1,500 of my constituents have called, not requesting but directing me to do this."

Henderson, a freshman legislator, represents Montgomery, Powell and Wolfe counties. Smith's district covers Knott, Magoffin and part of Letcher County.

The GOP led the charge against domestic-partner benefits earlier this year when Republican state Sen. Vernie McGaha of Russell Springs proposed a bill that banned state universities from offering them. After McGaha's measure failed to clear a state House committee, former GOP Gov. Ernie Fletcher tried to put it on his agenda for a special legislative session last summer.

Trustees at several Kentucky institutions, led by the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville, have approved offering health care to domestic partners of unmarried employees, including those who are gay.

McGaha, Fletcher and other proponents of the measure argued that those universities that are partially funded by the state are out of step with the state's constitution, which was changed in 2004 to ban gay couples from being married.

But the policies of U of L and UK don't use public funds to pay for health insurance or subsidize coverage for unmarried partners of employees. Instead, the universities allow those individuals to buy into the health insurance pool.

"Whether or not we're subsidizing directly their health care plans, we are, in fact, subsidizing their construction and overall operations of the universities," said Henderson. "I am not out for political gain, I just feel like a public institution that draws money from the state coffers is at the will of the people.

"I do not feel this is micromanaging our colleges or universities," he added.

That's exactly what this proposal does, argued Burch.

"If that's what they want, what we should do is fire every regent in all the colleges around the state and let the legislature run the institutions if Mr. Henderson feels so strongly about it," he said.

Promise of veto

UK President Lee T. Todd said yesterday that state universities' trustees should be free to determine their employees' health care coverage, especially when trying to attract top faculty and staff members.

"I had five committees that recommended to me that we do this (offer domestic partner benefits). It would be my preference that they allow universities to make that decision based on our needs," he said.

That's also been the position of Beshear, who officially started his new job as governor yesterday.

"The governor would stand by what he said earlier this summer that he would veto any such legislation," said spokeswoman Vicki Glass. "Our universities are competing with the top universities nationwide ... and ought to be free to design their own benefit packages."

Henderson said he's not deterred by Beshear's position.

"I stand firmly behind my governor," he said. "But I have an obligation to my constituents."

Rep. Stan Lee, the Republican House whip from Lexington who supports a ban on universities offering domestic-partner benefits, said with Democrats taking the lead on such a bill, it increases the chances that it could attract more than the 60 votes required to override a veto.

But the debate, Lee conceded, is likely to be a lively one.

And the Kentucky Equality Federation, which advocates for gay rights, called the pre-filed bill "distasteful and not at all in line with Governor Beshear's inaugural speech" that called for inclusion, said Jordan Palmer, the group's president. A coalition of gay-rights groups is planning a Capitol rally in February.

A number of Kentucky's largest private employers, such as Toyota, extend health care benefits to live-in partners of workers.

What happened last time

Burch, who chairs the House Health and Welfare Committee, questioned why his Democratic colleagues were pursuing this issue.

"If the governor says he's going to veto it, why should we even fool with it?" he said.

It was in Burch's committee that McGaha's domestic partnership bill died when the panel deadlocked 8-8. Smith, the co-sponsor of this latest incarnation of the proposal, would have been the deciding vote but wasn't present.

Smith said yesterday he probably would have opposed that version of the bill because of unclear language that might have blocked university employees from having health coverage extend to foster children or grandchildren. This proposed legislation clarifies that, he said.

Smith said he expects opposition from other members of his own party, but he predicts that "we've got enough support to get it out of committee and out of the House floor and send it to the Senate."

Two Democratic House leaders -- House Speaker Jody Richards and Democratic Caucus Chairman Charlie Hoffman -- said yesterday they were aware that some Democrats were talking about filing a bill but weren't sure how other Democrats would react.

Democrats outnumber Republicans in the lower chamber, 61 to 36, with three open seats. And with a budget and other major policy proposals looming in the upcoming session, division within the majority party would be counterproductive, Hoffman said.

"We don't want this type of issue to be one of the biggest things that we'll be dealing with in Frankfort," Hoffman said. "We don't need any distractions. We will handle it in a way that it won't be."

August 29, 2007

A lesson in free speech - Preaching, protest featured at Morehead State University

For the last two days, students at Morehead State University have been engaged in one of the epic battles of American democracy.

It began on Tuesday, when followers of a Christian organization named Soul Winners Ministries International arrived on campus.

The group, which has about six members, found MSU’s free speech area and began to speak.

What happened next depends on who you ask.

Soul Winners member Michael Venyah, who would not give a hometown, said his organization has been preaching the gospel in Kentucky and decided to visit Morehead. He said the group didn’t have one particular message.

“Our only desire is to love and preach God,” he said.

Another member, who gave his name only as J.K., said the message he was spreading was “Repent and believe the gospel and live by the teachings of the Bible.”

That message, however, wasn’t well received by many students at MSU who turned out by the dozen at the free speech area on Tuesday and Wednesday to exercise their own First Amendment rights.

Many said they witnessed the group heckling students, pointing out individuals as they passed, yelling at them to repent or face eternal damnation.

“Their message was ‘Everyone is going to go to hell.’ It doesn’t matter who it was,” said senior Gena Combs, 22, of Hazard.

“I don’t feel bad about them being here,” Combs said, adding she was singled out from the crowd and heckled. “I’m upset about the atmosphere,” which she described as “violent” and “negative.”

“I’m all for civil liberties and freedom of speech, but I think this qualifies as hate speech and harassment,” said junior Brian Stephens, 20, of Sandy Hook.

Stephens is openly gay and a member of the Kentucky Equality Federation, a statewide political action group that advocates for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Kentuckians.

“I go to school here peacefully. I don’t want people telling me I’m going to hell because I’m gay. I’m here to get an education,” he said, referencing a shirt worn by Venyah’s wife, Tamika, that read “No homos go to heaven.”

Stephens said he helped to organize the student counterprotest by posting an event to Facebook.

“Our plan was to encircle them and either play music or sing so they couldn’t be heard,” he said. They intended, he said, to send a message of love and peace.

“I don’t think our campus needs a violent atmosphere, and it’s not violent until people come along and start preaching hate,” he said.

Freshman Steven Osborne, 18, of Morehead, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said he too was offended by the group and showed up to protest, but for a very different reason.

“It’s insulting what they are doing,” he said. “(They are) chasing people away instead of bringing them in.”

The message should have been one of unity, he said, suggesting “Love one another” instead.

Junior Rocky Johnston, 23, of Somerset, who was sporting a “Mormon Boy” T-shirt and holding a well-worn Bible, said he joined the students counterprotest for similar reasons.

“I serve the mission and I know the message well,” he said. “Their message goes completely against what Jesus taught — love and forgiveness. We showed up to tell them God is love.”

J.K. denied the group was heckling individuals and said the crowd of students turned on him and his companions instead. As he headed to his car to leave campus, a police officer trailing him, he said: “We felt God told us to come here. Obviously we came to the right place.”

Venyah agreed the majority of students on campus was not receiving the group’s message. But he shrugged off the students’ actions.

“Sometimes people protest — as they did the prophets,” he said. Opposition is irrelevant.”

MSU professor of history John Ernst had a similiar opinion.

“I think it’s good and healthy,” he said, of the events. “It gets the students engaged and riled up. Free speech is one of the foundations of our country. Democracy is wonderful. It’s messy, though.”

Soul Winners was expected to return to the campus’ free speech center at 11 a.m. today. Stephens said students planned to fill the area ahead of time.

“I’m definitely coming back,” Osborne said.

“To let them know there is a better way to do it,” added Johnston.

March 29, 2007

3 are arrested at gay-rights group's event

Police arrested three people yesterday when a gay-rights group tried to talk to students at the University of the Cumberlands, which found itself embroiled in controversy last year after expelling a gay student.
About 25 people taking part in the Soulforce Equality Ride had stopped at the school. Soulforce is visiting 32 colleges and universities to draw attention to policies the group says discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and to promote hope and reconciliation, members said.

Members have been arrested at other stops, including earlier this week in Louisville.

"Throughout our stops in the South we have encountered a lot of hostility," said Matt Comer of Greensboro, N.C., an organizer of Soulforce.

Comer said that when the bus got to the school about 10 a.m., Michael Colegrove, the school's vice president for student services, told the riders they would be trespassing if they came on campus.

Dozens of police officers were on hand. Comer said police told the activists that they could not stand on a public sidewalk beside the campus, but rather would have to keep walking or face arrest.

Williamsburg Police Chief Denny Shelley said police charged Soulforce member Jacob Reitan with trespassing and failure to disperse. Two Cumberlands students were charged with failure to disperse.

Comer said it seemed the university and police tried to keep the Soulforce riders from talking to students.

"It sounds ridiculous to even say" someone could be charged for standing on a public sidewalk, Comer said. "The police know what they're doing is wrong."

Colegrove said the university also tried to cooperate with the group and offered members a spot on campus for their visit. However, the group wanted free run of the campus, which wasn't possible because of the potential disruption, and rejected the university's offer, he said.

Comer, however, said Soulforce did not reject the university's offer. A university official quickly withdrew the offer because of a miscommunication and later refused to agree to terms in writing, he said.

The group talked to students for about three hours.

Later yesterday, Soulforce members held a rally on the steps of the Whitley County courthouse. About 40 people listened and about 10 protesters stood on the courthouse lawn holding signs with Bible verses on them.

Many conservative Christians believe the Bible condemns homosexuality. Soulforce members, however, say that belief is hurtful and wrong; several said they consider themselves Christians.

Emily Harlow, a freshman at the University of the Cumberlands, said she came to the rally to hear what group members had to say.

"It's time Cumberland realized it's OK to be gay and be a Christian."

There had been concern on campus that students could face trouble for talking to Soulforce members or attending the rally.

Colegrove, however, said that wasn't the case. Students have First Amendment rights too, he said.

Still, Jordan Palmer, president of the Kentucky Equality Federation, which helped pay for the Soulforce visit to Williamsburg, gave students cards and said to call him if they encountered a problem as a result of coming to the rally.

Kyle DeVries, a Soulforce spokesman, identified the two Cumberlands students who were arrested as Warry Woodward and Annie Decrescente.

Last year, the university expelled Jason Johnson of Lexington, who had disclosed on a Web site that he is gay.

The university's policy said any student who engages in or promotes sexual behavior not consistent with Christian principles, including homosexuality or sex outside marriage, could be suspended or asked to leave school.

University President Jim Taylor said at the time the policy was in line with traditional denominational beliefs.

Johnson returned to Williamsburg yesterday to be with the protesters and thanked students at his former school.

"Bless you," he told the students. "You have more courage than you know."

Johnson is now a student at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond.

February 23, 2007

Hundreds turn out to fight for gay rights

Yesterday was a historic day in the Commonwealth of Kentucky as gay rights organizations and their allies brought the fight directly to their seat of government at the Kentucky Capitol in Frankfort.

Hosted by Kentucky Fairness Alliance and Louisville's Fairness Campaign, with support from Kentucky Equality Federation and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, more than 250 people showed up at the Capitol Rally.

Kentucky Equality Federation would like to give special thanks to Model High School's Gay-Straight Alliance as well as the Eastern Kentucky University Pride Alliance, and Boone County High School Gay-Straight Alliance for their support. Federation President Jordan Palmer, Federation Alliance Manager Clarence Wallace, and Northern Chapter President Nick Herweck coordinated their participation in the historic event.

Special thanks also to Jordan Boyer with Model High School, and Ms. Staci Wilson.

"We must fight the bigotry anti-gay groups and some homophobic elected officials practice; they want nothing more than to dehumanize a large group of people, deny their humanity, happiness, health, civil, and God given rights. If this isn't challenged by everyone, we are giving our government the green light to victimize other minority groups." - Jordan Palmer, Kentucky Equality Federation President

Click here to view photos.

United We Stand - Kentucky's LGBTI News

February 16, 2007

Kentucky Senate Committee votes to ban domestic-partner benefits across the commonwealth.

Universities and other public agencies should not be allowed to offer health benefits to unmarried domestic partners of employees, a Senate committee said yesterday in approving a bill its sponsor said was not gay bashing.

Senator Vernie McGaha, R-Russell Springs, said his Senate Bill 152 is needed to "clear up confusion" in state public agencies' health insurance plans.

The bill would require public agencies to allow their employees to select health insurance coverage only for themselves and family members. It defines public agencies as any participating in a state retirement system or health insurance plan or subject to state laws on higher education.

The University of Louisville approved the benefits last year. The University of Kentucky is considering the move.

In a statement yesterday, UK President Lee Todd said UK "is opposed to any legislation that limits the university's ability to make determinations regarding the relationship with its employees."

University of Louisville President Jim Ramsey spoke against the bill in testifying before the Senate committee.

The policy at the university does not cost the state any tax dollars since the employee has to pay the premiums for others, Ramsey said. "We at the university embrace diversity and tolerance."

Ramsey said the place to stop the bill probably will be in the House, where Democrats are in the majority. The Senate is controlled by Republicans.

David Edmunds, policy analyst for The Family Foundation in Lexington, testified before the committee in support of McGaha's bill.

"The question of domestic partners is actually a debate about marriage," said Edmunds, noting that 75 percent of Kentucky voters in 2004 approved a constitutional amendment that prohibits same-sex marriage.

"That amendment said, 'A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized.'" Edmunds said.

McGaha said the bill was "in no way" an attempt to harm gays.

Kentucky Equality Federation President Jordan Palmer quickly condemned the vote.

"Corporations across the nation continue to surpass our commonwealth in extending domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples. This is homophobia in its simplest form; bigotry that seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, deny their humanity, happiness, health, civil, and God given rights. If this isn't challenged by all Kentuckians we are giving our government the green light to victimize other minority groups." Palmer said.

Governor Ernie Fletcher said earlier in the day that he thinks it is the responsibility of the board of trustees at each one of the universities to make those decisions.

"We'll have to wait and see what the legislature does, and I will be taking a look at it at that point."

Eight members of the Senate State and Local Government Committee voted for the bill. Two Democrats -- Walter Blevins of West Liberty and Julian Carroll of Frankfort -- did not vote.

The bill now goes to the Senate for its consideration.

House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, said, "Generally, we do not micromanage universities."

House Judiciary Chairwoman Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, called McGaha's bill "short-sighted and wrong."

"We have no business trying to micromanage the affairs of our state universities," she said. "Once again, we are trying to gain political popularity by beating up on a group of folks who are fine contributing citizens of the commonwealth."
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