City Could Be State's First To Give Gay Couples Benefits

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio (AP) - The Cleveland suburb of Cleveland Heights could become the first city in Ohio to extend health, dental and sick leave benefits to same-sex couples.

Cleveland Heights estimates the extension of benefits would cost about $5,000 a couple. Three to five employees are expected to sign up immediately, Mayor Ed Kelley said.

An ordinance to extend benefits to same-sex partners was introduced to council Monday. Benefits would not extend to unmarried heterosexual couples who live together.

"People who live together of the opposite sex have the option to get married," councilwoman Bonnie Caplan said.

In recent years, city and state governments and companies have expanded employee health care coverage to include same-sex partners. Those companies include TRW Inc., Key Corp. and University Hospitals in the Cleveland area, said Tim Downing, a partner at Ulmer and Berne law firm who specializes in employment law.

If Cleveland Heights approves its ordinance, it would clash with legislation pending in the General Assembly, Downing said. The Ohio House in November approved a bill to bar recognition of same-sex marriages and extension of benefits to those in the relationships. The bill is pending in the Senate.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based organization that tracks gay political issues, 128 local governments have extended health care benefits to same-sex couples.

Linda Malicki said she is hopeful the Cleveland Heights council will approve the ordinance when it votes in two weeks.

Malicki, who runs the Lesbian/Gay Community Service Center, said the main issue isn't gay rights.

"Ordinances like these are about health care," she said. "It's about health care first. Gay rights second."

Support for the ordinance isn't unanimous.

"What about adults caring for their parents or another family members' kids," councilman Jimmie Hicks said. "We aren't addressing these people with the Cleveland Heights legislation."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)