Why Stop With Domestic Partner Benefits?

Chattanooga’s City Council will soon take up a measure that would extend certain employee benefits beyond married couples to domestic partners.  This week a majority of Nashville’s Metro Council members sent a letter to the mayor asking that he begin the process for doing the same thing.  Many folks will say, “Why not?  What’s the big deal?  What will it hurt?”  Those are actually great questions.  But depending on how you look at it, these cities aren’t going far enough.

Assuming these cities follow the lead of other cities in America, a “domestic partner” is someone with whom a city’s employee has been in a “continuous committed relationship” for some defined period of time.  Usually proof of that relationship is proof that expenses are being shared or there is some financial interdependence.

Once the relationship is “proved,” then the employee’s partner and any dependents they might have can be covered under the taxpayer-funded, city health insurance plan.

But most of the time, if not all the time, that “continuous committed relationship” involving financial interconnectedness of some kind cannot be one that, by blood or degree of relationship, would preclude the individuals from getting married.

In other words, two elderly sisters who have been living together for some time and sharing expenses don’t qualify.  A single or widowed mother living with an adult child who, for whatever reason, is not able to live entirely on his or her own is out of luck.

So, these city policies provide benefits for only some relationships of commitment and continuity, not all of them.

However, by excluding these other relationships, the city is saying that they are not important.  As same-sex marriage advocates like to say of defenders of marriage, the city is stigmatizing those relationships and deeming them inferior to theirs.

But the question is why?  Why aren’t those other relationships just as important?  Why should they be excluded?  

If these cities really believe in equality, then they must have a reason for treating these other relationships differently, for excluding them.  True equality demands as much.

One reason often given for extending health insurance to “domestic partners” is that it is necessary in order to compete for high quality employees who might otherwise be lost to private sector employers who provide such benefits.  That’s essentially what Nashville’s mayor said in response to the letter from the Metro Council members.

That, of course, is a practical and utilitarian argument.  But if staying competitive with the private sector is the issue, then that is all the more reason to extend benefits to the two sisters who share expenses and to the single mom with the adult child at home.

Surely there are persons out there in relationships like that who may be highly skilled.  So if competition is the issue, then why wouldn’t the city want to increase its competitive edge – go beyond “domestic partnership” so narrowly defined and include all persons in a continuous committed relationship?

The reason they won’t is that “competitive advantage” is a nice sounding cliché that the masses will readily accept and about which they won’t think too deeply.  But it is a hollow and insufficient reason for arbitrarily treating different kinds of continuously committed relationships differently.

The real reason advocates for “domestic partnership” benefits are willing to exclude the sister and the single mom from benefits is because these advocates want to have society treat their relationships as the moral and ethical equivalent of marriage as historically defined. 

But now we come to the crux of the issue: What is the definition of marriage and what makes a marriage a marriage?

Only after we have answered those questions can we determine whether same-sex relationships and relationships between cohabitating heterosexuals are essentially the same as a marriage and should therefore be given the same treatment.

I’ve given my reasons for why I think they are not the same.  Now the elected officials in these cities who say they are for treating them the same need to make their case.

Knowing politicians like I do, they won’t unless their constituents make them.  In Chattanooga, you can encourage them to do so by signing a petition to City Council to keep marriage unique.