The Washington Post
Gym Benefits Extended To Same-Sex Couples
McDonnell Says Va. Law Allows Privilege
RICHMOND, June 20 — It’s not the right to marry or even protection against employment discrimination or hate crimes.
But in a state where gays and lesbians have had few legislative successes, same-sex couples at the University of Virginia scored a victory this week.
The university announced it will allow same-sex partners of students and employees to join the school’s gym, a privilege that has been extended to married couples for years.
The school’s decision came after Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) issued an opinion June 7 saying the extension of gym memberships to unmarried couples does not conflict with state laws prohibiting public schools and local governments from offering health insurance coverage to domestic partners. Virginia’s code and constitution also outlaws gay marriages and civil unions.
Because state laws do not address the issue of gym benefits, McDonnell said, “the University of Virginia is authorized to provide a recreational gym membership to an adult who is not a spouse and who lives in a household of an employee or student.”
University officials, under pressure from gay students and faculty members, said they have been trying since 2004 to add domestic partners to their gym policy.
In recent years, several state colleges and universities, including Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University, have expanded their gym policies to include same-sex couples.
U-Va. officials said they were stymied by former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore (R), who told them in 2005 that the school cannot grant benefits for relationships not recognized by state law. Kilgore said he does not remember giving that advice.
Earlier this year, U-Va. sought an opinion from McDonnell, who took office in 2006.
Carol Wood, a U-Va. spokeswoman, said McDonnell’s opinion means the school will immediately start allowing students and faculty members to add one person who lives with them to their gym memberships, for $270 a year.
“It could be your best friend; it could be your grandmother; it could be your significant other,” Wood said.
Gay rights advocates said McDonnell’s opinion is noteworthy, especially considering that the attorney general was a leader in the successful effort to enact a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages and civil unions.
“It is important that all employers have the right to set policies for their employees,” said Dyana Mason, executive director of Equality Virginia, a gay civil rights group. “It will help support and retain the best candidates to work at U-Va., and it can help save families literally hundreds of dollars a year by not having to go to a private gym.”
McDonnell, a possible candidate for governor who has been trying to bolster his ties to social conservatives, was careful to say his opinion dealt with any two adults who live together in the same house, not gay couples.
He added a footnote to his opinion, saying the school might be in violation of the state constitution if “personal relationships” become the criterion for extending gym memberships.
As amended by voters last fall, the Virginia Constitution prohibits “a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the designs, significance or effects of marriage.”
Spokesman Tucker J. Martin said McDonnell’s opinion was about the “the use of gyms at the University of Virginia” and “not about a larger cultural or social issue.”
Nonetheless, some social conservatives in the General Assembly aren’t happy with the opinion.
Del. Robert G. Marshall (RPrince William) said U-Va. appears to be making special exceptions for gay couples, whom he considers to be immoral. Marshall asked several pointed questions to drive home his opposition to same-sex relationships.
“What if you want to give the benefit to your pet? Does your cat get to go to the gym?” Marshall asked. “What if a guy is in a plural relationship with two girls, do they all get the benefit? If you are bisexual and all live together, do both he and she get to use the gym?”
Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), who represents Charlottesville and has been lobbying U-Va. to extend the gym benefit to gay couples, applauded McDonnell’s opinion.
“It accurately reflects the law,” Deeds said. “There are other matters you would have to revisit by changing state law, but not gym benefits.”