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Ruling Could Help Gay Faculty in Nebraska

May 16, 2005

Gay faculty members at the University of Nebraska have been fighting for more than a decade to win health insurance and other employee benefits for their partners.

A ruling by a federal judge last week finding the state's ban on gay marriage unconstitutional may help revive the fight -- although supporters acknowledge that they have many more hurdles to get over. The Nebraska measure, approved by voters in 2000, barred not only gay marriage, but any state recognition of same-sex relationships.

The University of Nebraska took no position on the measure or the court battle against it, which will continue now with an appeal by the state. A spokeswoman for the university said that the ruling would have no effect because the university restricts employee benefits to partners connected by legal marriage.

One of the prime examples used in fighting the measure, however, involved an English professor at the university's Lincoln campus. Technically, the plaintiffs in the case were organizations, not individuals. But those organizations cited the experiences of some of their members to argue against the measure. One of those cited was Barbara DiBernard, who has taught at Lincoln since 1978 and who has been in a committed relationship for the last 16 of those years with Judith Gibson.

Gibson has a degenerative chronic, post-polio condition, but cannot afford to quit her job because DiBernard can't add her to her health insurance coverage.

"We don't have the flexibility of my heterosexual married colleagues," DiBernard said. She called last week's ruling "a step in the right direction," and said that it would prompt faculty members to again start to push for domestic partnership benefits. Under the university's procedures, any change would have to be approved for the entire university system -- and its elected Board of Regents -- which DiBernard acknowledged would be difficult.

She noted, however, that when she took at job in Nebraska, there were few universities where a gay or lesbian professor could hope for benefits for a partner. Now there are many such places, she said, and her department has been turned down by prospective hires over the issue.

"This decision is one piece of what will be necessary to change things,"  DiBernard said.

 

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