With USA Today and gay marriage, impatience is a virtue

Come on, Catholic schools! It's been a whole week since gay marriage was legalized in Florida, and you still haven't given them medical and retirement benefits!

That's the impression that emerges from the lede of a story that USA Today ran on Jan. 14. A federal judge legalized same-sex marriage on Jan. 6, but Catholic schools didn't immediately extend to gay couples the same benefits as those for heteros.

The USA Today story seems to brim with impatience:

One week after gay marriage was legalized in Florida, several Catholic universities have not provided a clear same-sex benefits package for employees. There is increasing pressure for public and private employers alike to offer all benefits — from medical insurance to retirement — to all married couples regardless of sex, starting on the day that state gay marriage was legalized. In this case, that date was Jan. 6, 2015.

By "several Catholic universities," USA Today means two schools: Barry University in Miami Shores and St. Leo University in west-central Florida.  The state's other three Catholic schools of higher education -- St. Thomas University, Ave Maria University and Ave Maria School of Law -- are not in the article.

That doesn't stop USA Today from scolding all of the schools.  The newspaper literally lays down the law, via a quote from a gay rights leader:

Shannon Minter, director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, says all Florida companies —  regardless of their religious heritage — have an immediate requirement to provide the same benefits to employees.
Minter argues Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects workers from restrictions to enrollment plans based on same-sex marriage.  Title VII is one of the most prominent laws preventing companies from making hiring decisions based on qualities like gender, religion and sex. Since there is no longer a legal distinction between a marriage of opposite sexes and same-sex marriage, not offering the same benefits because of sex is discrimination, according to Minter.
“They’re still an employer in the workplace, they’re still bound by Title Seven,” says Minter, “That is against the law. They might not realize it’s against the law, but it is.”

The story also calls "gotcha" on Barry University. Its communications manager says that the school relies on guidance from a healthcare consortium for such things. Then USA Today quotes the consortium's website that member schools can tailor the benefits to their own goals. And the story reports that the University of Tampa, which uses the same consortium, already has same-sex spouse benefits.

Annnnd, the HR director at Barry "did not respond to USA TODAY’s request to comment on this discrepancy."

Barry's p.r. man, Jeff LaLiberte, does sound like the questions caught him by surprise. So does a spokesperson for St. Leo, who says that the school hasn't talked about changes in benefits, "but that doesn't mean it won't change in the future."

The article says that "some" American Catholic colleges quickly changed their benefits to include same-sex couples. But how many is "some"? The story only cites Notre Dame University, which adjusted in October after the Supreme Court struck down same-sex marriage bans in its home state of Indiana. That gives Minter an opening to declare false the "trope" that Catholic schools all reject benefits for gay couples.

That strikes me as a mountain built from a molehill. Notre Dame hardly accounts for a sizable portion of the 200-plus American Catholic colleges and universities. Moreover, Notre Dame was reacting to a different court case -- related to the pending cases, true, but still separate from them. If it were directly comparable, same-sex marriage would be legal nationwide now.

Now, it's entirely possible that the Catholic schools are delaying on changing same-sex benefits, and it wouldn't be hard to guess why, given the Catholic Church's opposition to same-sex marriage. The administrations are likely asking lawyers on what such changes might lead to, such as gay weddings on campus. They might also be asking the lawyers what would happen if they fought the court decision. And, of course, they would want to know how the First Amendment relates to the matter.

USA Today does address the latter, but only in passing:

On the other hand, there is a possibility religious institutions could be exempt. Back in December, Matthew Franck, director of the Witherspoon Institute’s Simon Center on Religion, made a statement to the Associated Press that when it comes to employees, churches and affiliates have a little bit of leeway.
He says the first amendment protects religious institutions, which could insulate them from a discrimination suit concerning same-sex benefits.

Those two paragraphs, among the 24 in the story, are the only acknowledgment here that there might be exceptions for religious schools. And note that the paragraphs are not from a live quote, but from a statement in a month-old AP story. Looks like it was an afterthought, a token attempt to report both sides.

But the overall emphasis of the article is clear: Catholic schools, get in step.

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