Click here for General Assembly coverage

Board of Pensions approves benefits for same-gender domestic partners

Starting in 2013, the Board of Pensions  of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will begin offering benefits to same-gender domestic partners of those who are members of the board’s pension and other benefits plans.

          The extension of benefits will apply to plan members who can show documentation of a formal domestic partnership established through a civil marriage, a civil union or under a state domestic partnership law. It would not apply to unmarried heterosexual couples living together.

          When such formal domestic partnerships exist, the partner of the plan member and the partner’s children would be eligible for coverage under the board’s medical and other benefits plans.

          The board does not plan to offer a “relief of conscience” provision to those who disagree with allowing domestic partners to be included, because the extension of coverage will not result in any increase in dues for members at this time.

          The board’s decision, made March 3, to extend coverage to domestic partners came in response to a General Assembly action taken in 2010. The 2010 assembly, responding to an overture from New Castle Presbytery, asked the Board of Pensions to consider making same-gender partners eligible for coverage, and approved an increase of dues of up to 1 percent, if needed, to pay for the expansion.

          The assembly also “highly urged” the board to provide a mechanism for relief of conscience “for those congregations for whom these actions cause a moral dilemma.”

          Following the 2010 assembly, the Board of Pensions established an eight-member special committee to study the issue. After a year of study, that committee recommended that the board offer benefits to same-gender domestic partners, on a basis as close as possible to the benefits offered to the spouses of heterosexual married couples and those spouses’ children.

          The committee reported that it “carefully considered” the relief of conscience question, examining the relief of conscience process the board currently has in place regarding abortion coverage. That process separates medical dues payments from those objecting to abortion claims into a separate stream, and does not use those payments for medical claims related to abortion, but funnels an equivalent amount to support for adoption assistance grants.

          Providing benefits to same-gender partners would not increase dues at this time, so it’s not possible to separate out the dues stream in the same way, the committee reported. But it recommended that the board “monitor the cost of coverage for same-gender domestic partners and their children and consider the relief of conscience issue when and if such costs are determinable,” the committee’s report to the board states.

In July 2011, the board’s directors did vote to raise dues by 0.75 percent in 2012 and by the same percentage in 2013, to keep reserves in the medical plan within the board’s guidelines. According to the board, that cost increase is not related to the decision to offer benefits for same-gender partners.

          The committee also concluded that extending benefits to same-gender partners “would be acting consistently” with the board’s historic efforts “to administer the plan in accordance with the values of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),” and that the action of the 2010 General Assembly on this issue was consistent with a longstanding commitment by the church to civil rights and to the value of equal pay for equal work.

          In doing its work, the committee received comments from hundreds of congregations and individuals, and held a number of “listening sessions.”

          The committee also concluded that extending benefits to same-gender partners would not harm the plan’s solvency. It used an actuarial estimate that from 1 percent to 5 percent of plan members would likely have same-gender partners.

          Using that estimate, extending benefits would have a one-time impact of between $10 million and $40 million for the pension plan – less than 1 percent of the pension plan’s overall liabilities.

          The impact on the medical plan is estimated at less than 1 percent of the plan’s annual expenses.

          “These estimates are based on the actuaries’ assumptions and experience with corporate plans that have adopted comparable benefits coverage,” the report states, adding that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for example, experienced only a “minimal increase” in participation when it extended benefits to same-gender partners.

          The committee concluded that that the board could offer benefits to same-gender partners without taking a stand on the theological debate over ordaining gays and lesbians, or the PC(USA)’s definition of Christian marriage as being between a man and a woman.

          It also considered the question of how to define a same-gender partnership.

          The United Church of Christ and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America both allow same-gender couples to submit an affidavit stating that the relationship includes sharing a joint residence, financial interdependence and public acknowledgement of the relationship. The committee decided, however, that taking such an approach would extend benefits to same-gender couples beyond that allowed for heterosexual couples, for whom the board requires a legal marriage in order for benefits to be offered.

          It also decided not to require same-gender couples to be civilly married in a state that permits it. According to the report, the committee thought such a requirement could pose a burden for those who live in states that don’t allow same-gender marriage. And it might force those ordained as teaching elders, ruling elders or deacons to violate their ordination vows, the report states, as the PC(USA) defines Christian marriage as being only between heterosexual couples and requires those being ordained to uphold the denomination’s polity and discipline.

          The report states that the approach the committee chose “both honors Christian marriage as defined in the Book of Order and keeps the Board of Pensions out of the business of defining relationships, as would have been the case under an affidavit approach.”

          The Board of Pensions will report its action regarding same-gender benefits to the 2012 General Assembly, but does not need approval for the action it has taken. San Diego Presbytery, however, has submitted an overture urging the Board of Pensions to refrain from extending benefits to same-gender partners – so the issue will be before the assembly again this year.