Brad Ankney is a man of few words. Ask the 48-year-old Brighton Heights resident why he's suing his employer, and his answer is, "I got tired of being treated as ‘less than.'"
But ask Ankney about the man whom he has shared his life with for the past 15 years, and he opens up: "He's the rock of my life, the most important person in it. But because we're two men, we're treated as less than second-class citizens."
For 12 years, Ankney has taught math to troubled kids for Allegheny Intermediate Unit 3, which provides support services to suburban schools throughout Allegheny County. Like most educational institutions, the AIU offers benefits only to married partners — a policy Ankney says violates a 2009 county ordinance barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The American Civil Liberties Union has taken up the case, and attorney Sara Rose says that if Ankney wins, every school district and municipal employer in Allegheny County could be required to offer domestic-partner benefits. (Private employers, whose benefit policies are governed by federal law, would not be affected.)
The ACLU launched a similar challenge to the benefits policy at the University of Pittsburgh more than a decade ago, but the case was tossed out on jurisdictional grounds. (Pitt later offered domestic-partner benefits anyway.) Otherwise, Ankney's case is "almost unprecedented — literally," says Levana Layndecker, a spokesperson for LGBT advocacy group Equality PA. Until the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act earlier this year, "We haven't really seen people suing for partner benefits ... although we've gotten a decent number of inquiries since" the court ruling.
The AIU's legal response is much like the one Pitt offered: It doesn't discriminate because it doesn't offer benefits "to unmarried domestic partners, whether such partner is of the same sex or opposite sex." And while marriage laws may be discriminatory, those laws are written by the state: "[T]his is neither the case nor the forum to challenge Pennsylvania's marriage statute," the AIU argues.
That reasoning has carried the day so far. When Ankney filed a complaint with the county's Human Relations Commission in late 2012, it was quickly dismissed.
"Mr. Ankney is in kind of a catch-22 situation," says Assistant County Solicitor Robert Bogoyn. "The AIU provide benefits for married persons, but unfortunately, Pennsylvania does not recognize gay marriage."
Some say districts are caught in a catch-22 of their own.
Stuart Knade, chief counsel for the Pennsylvania School Board Association, says that while some districts offer benefits, others plead, "‘Please, don't make us your battlefield. It's tough enough to educate kids without having to tiptoe through minefields.' ... Schools ought to be able to rely on statutes as they're written, not as clever lawyers might read into them."
The ACLU maintains that Ankney is not challenging Pennsylvania's marriage law. (The ACLU has filed a whole other case doing that.) Instead, it opposes using marriage as the basis for allocating benefits. The ACLU's filings liken the situation to an employer who offered benefits only to workers who registered for the military draft. Since women can't be drafted under the Selective Service Act, the requirement would be discriminatory ... and challenging it "would not bring into question the constitutionality of the Selective Service Act" itself.
Oral arguments before Common Pleas Court Judge Christine Ward are slated for January. But however Ankney's case turns out, his cause will almost certainly succeed. Some local districts already offer domestic-partner benefits ... including that workers' paradise known as Upper St. Clair. The same community that helped give the world Rick Santorum now gives benefits to gay and lesbian teachers.
Ankney has seen similar shifts: "I grew up in Somerset County, and there's a lot less hostility today." And though he's a private person, "I'm getting outside of my shell, and I've found an incredible amount of support."
Still, attitudes are changing faster than institutions — especially institutions in Harrisburg. School districts and other local entities will be battlegrounds, until anti-equality politicians admit they've lost the fight.
So as the ACLU and the AIU slug it out, there's really only one question here: After 12 years on the job, how much longer will Brad Ankney have to work for benefits his co-workers take for granted?