Local City Is First In State To Give Gay Couples Benefits

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio (AP) - The Cleveland suburb of Cleveland Heights -- population 51,000 -- has become the first city in Ohio to extend health benefits to the same-sex partners of city employees.

City Council voted on the ordinance Monday night after listening to a divided crowd of more than 200 speak for about 3½ hours.

Some people closed their eyes, kneeled and folded their hands in prayer and quoted the Bible. Others revealed their homosexuality to their neighbors.

Residents opposed to the plan covering city employees have organized a group called Families First. They are petitioning for a citywide vote on the ordinance.

"I consider this ordinance an affront on marriage," said Tracie Moore, a 24-year resident who heads the group. "A man cannot be a woman and a woman cannot be a man. What is your legal justification for redefining marriage?"

The Rev. Donald F. King of Hope Lutheran Church supports the ordinance. He said it's about justice.

"We have to have a lot more faith in heterosexuality. Those benefits will not bring people into homosexuality," he said.

Russell Baron, a 50-year resident who has a gay son and supports the ordinance, told council that residents have different beliefs.

"This is not a city based on the Ten Commandments," he said. "This is a community of mixed values."

Jimmie Hicks was the only council member to vote against the ordinance. He said he opposed it because it fails to offer benefits to people who are taking care of relatives' children or elderly parents.

Mayor Ed Kelley said recently that he thinks no more than five same-sex couples will sign up for benefits, which would cost the city about $5,000 a couple per year. The city has about 450 municipal employees.

Kelley said the city takes pride in its racial and cultural diversity.

Hicks called the legislation a political payback to the Cleveland Stonewall Democrats, a gay political organization that endorsed Kelley and councilwoman Bonnie Caplan in elections last fall. Kelley denied the accusation and said he supported the legislation because it is the right thing to do.

"Any allegation that a pre- or post-election deal was cut is completely false," said Patrick Shepherd, president of the Stonewall Democrats. "This legislation is about fairness. It is becoming a substantial business practice."

Across the country, 128 local governments offer health benefits to same-sex couples, according to Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C., gay political organization.

David Smith, spokesman for Human Rights Campaign, said Tuesday that governments have been slower than corporations in extending benefits to same-sex couples. Of the Fortune 500 companies, 165 extend such benefits, he said.

Smith said bias also might be a factor but added, "We see it simply as equal pay for equal work."

Census figures show Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland and Cleveland Heights, had 1,368 male same-sex couples in 2000 and 1,326 female. Kelley had no estimate of the number in Cleveland Heights.

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