Right now several cities in Tennessee are debating whether to extend health insurance coverage to the “significant other” of their employees and any children residing in their shared household. I’ve thought a lot about one of the primary arguments I‘ve heard in support of doing this. And one of my most frustrating experiences in college came to mind. I hope it will help you clarify this issue of equality as it did for me.
One of the arguments for treating same-sex relationships the same as the marital relationship for purpose of determining who qualifies as a dependent of a city employee is equal pay (or benefits) for equal work. In our reasoning-by-sound-bite world, it sounds reasonable. It even sounds just.
However, my experience with a college accounting class has helped me clarify the issue. Exams in this class were open book. But knowing the CPA exam I eventually planned to take would not be “open book,” I decided to study hard and answer the questions without reference to the book.
When the grades on the first test came back, some in the class had a higher grade than I. What frustrated me was that I knew many of them had not studied at all. It didn’t seem fair that a person could do no real work and get a better grade.
That is when I realized that “effort” was not what was being graded. The issue was whether you had the right answer, regardless of how you came up with it. On that basis my lower grade was “fair.”
The point of the story is this: is the real issue being debated by these city governments one of effort or relationship? In other words, is it an issue of equal benefits for an equal effort in the workplace or is it one of equal benefits for equal relationships? The following example shows why it is not really an issue of equal benefits for equal effort.
Assume a woman performs a certain accounting function for the city, and she and her older, widowed sister live together and shares expenses. No city is considering letting the widowed sister go on that employee’s health insurance plan.
Assume another woman does the exact same job for the City, but she is in a committed sexual relationship with the woman with whom she lives. In the case of Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Nashville, each city is proposing to let the employee put her partner on their city’s health insurance plan.
If the issue was equal benefits for equal effort, then the two women should be treated the same. Each should be allowed to put the person with whom they are living and sharing expenses on the city’s health insurance plan. But that is not what the cities are going to do. Through this example, we see that the real issue is not effort, but one of relationship, namely, what relationships are equal to marriage.
Consequently, don’t believe those who say this issue is about equal pay for equal work and has nothing to do with redefining marriage. Those who vote to extend benefits to any two persons who are in a sexual relationship will have effectively redefined marriage by saying all sexual relationships between two people are the same in the eyes of the law, regardless of what you call them.
But if those who vote that way don’t some day say that three in a committed sexual relationship is as good as two, then as my old accounting professor would say, the scales of equality will be “out of balance.”