Update: Finance agency extends benefits for same-sex couples

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General agencies of the United Methodist Church will extend employee benefits to same-sex couples under a decision by the board of directors of the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration.

The church’s official position is that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and GCFA’s board said it will ask Judicial Council, the supreme court of the church, for a declaratory judgment on whether the benefits extension violates church law.

“The board’s decision was taken in light of actions taken in states where same-sex marriage and domestic partnerships are now the law of the land,” said Bishop Michael J. Coyner, president of GCFA. “Our board has sought with this action to make policy decisions that stay in conformity with both civil and church law. We look forward to the Judicial Council’s guidance on this matter.”

The GCFA board on Oct. 21 changed the general agencies’ welfare benefits program’s definition of “spouse” to include same-sex spouses, recognized by a state as being legally married to the employee, and civil partners, either through a civil union or a comprehensive domestic partnership, recognized by a state as being the legal partner of an employee.

GCFA announced the decision in a news release Tuesday. The agency’s board took the action after hearing from its Committee on Personnel Policy and Practices, made up of representatives of all 11 agencies that get general apportioned funds.

Paragraph 806.9 of the 2012 Book of Discipline, the church law book, states that GCFA “shall be responsible for ensuring that no board, agency, committee, commission, or council shall give United Methodist funds to any gay caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality or violate the expressed commitment of The United Methodist Church ‘not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.’”

The GCFA news release said Judicial Council will be asked whether general agency payments for portions of the insurance premiums for same-sex spouses and civil partners of general agency employees violates the Book of Discipline.

The Rev. Tom Lambrecht, vice president of Good News, an unofficial caucus within the United Methodist Church that supports the church’s position on homosexuality, called GCFA’s extension of benefits “troubling.”

Lambrecht said the board should have asked for input from around the church and should have gone to Judicial Council before extending benefits.

“This decision appears to undercut the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality,” Lambrecht added. “While it is one of our Christian values not to discriminate against persons because of their sexual orientation, it is even more important to remain faithful to the biblical teaching that defines marriage as the lifelong union between a man and a woman.  The question of funding to promote the acceptance of homosexuality is not the only way this new policy might contravene the Book of Discipline.

Matt Berryman, executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial caucus working to change the church’s position on homosexuality, welcomed the benefits extension while questioning the motives.

“We celebrate this decision as it undoubtedly brings dignity and security to LGBT persons in new ways, but we acknowledge as well the fact that this decision is, in large part, a reflection of the council’s administrative and legal concerns,” he said. “LGBT United Methodists long for the day when the church’s faithfulness to a gospel of inclusion and justice fuels decision-making with regard to the inclusion of LGBT persons at every level of the church’s life.”

Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor, said “inevitably” there will be legal challenges to religious groups that don’t extend benefits to employees in same-sex marriages.

“Churches that choose on religious grounds not to employ or provide spousal benefits to spouses in same-sex marriages must make sure that their own legal documents and benefit plans do not obligate them to provide benefits to all spouses, or commit them to nondiscrimination in overly broad terms, and amend those documents if necessary,” said Laycock, co-editor of the book “Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts.”

New Jersey this week became the 14th state, along with the District of Columbia, to allow same-sex marriage.

Some United Methodist-affiliated colleges already extend benefits to same-sex spouses or domestic partners of employees. Southern Methodist University in Dallas has done so since  2002, said spokesman Kent Best.

The United Methodist General Board of Pension and Health Benefits has extended benefits coverage to domestic partners of its lay employees since 2011, when Illinois, where the pension board is based, approved civil unions. But no apportioned church funds are involved, noted Andy Hendren, asociate general counsel.

The Judicial Council ruled in 2007 that the Minnesota Annual (regional) Conference  could have a benefits plan that covered domestic partners of lay employees. But the council stressed in its decision that employees were paying the cost, and no church funds were involved.

Denicia Roberts, GCFA’s executive human resources director, said United Methodist general agency employees can sign up to take advantage of the benefits extension during an open enrollment period beginning Oct. 28. Coverage will be effective Jan. 1.

The benefits are for medical, dental and vision care, and children in the family are covered as well, Roberts said.

General agency workers who live in a state that has not legalized same-sex marriage or civil unions are still eligible for the benefits extension. But their same-sex marriage or civil union must be legally recognized in a state that does permit such marriages or unions, said Dan Gary, GCFA administrative counsel.

Gary added that he expects GCFA to file its request for a declaratory judgment in time for Judicial Council’s April 2014 docket. But he said he couldn’t predict when the council will rule.

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