One day prior to scheduled same-sex marriage ceremonies being held on campus, the ordained minister chosen to officiate over the ceremony, who also happens to be a Northern Kentucky University faculty member, got cold feet.
The proposed ceremony had brought conversations and concern among some, including the employee’s supervisors and a few of the University’s top administrators, that it could have a potential impact on proposed legislation that would prohibit NKU and other state colleges and universities from giving health benefits to employees domestic partners.
The Board of Regents, the governing body of the university, is considering the issue of domestic partner benefits and has formed a domestic partner benefit subcommittee, according to University President James Votruba. Students also raised concerns with the president’s office that the ceremony could be illegal.
Sam Lapin, a communication arts lecturer at the Grant County Center and a minister ordained through the Universal Life Church Monastery, an interfaith religious organization, had originally agreed to conduct the wedding services of same-sex couples on the main campus at a celebration of Freedom to Marry Day, organized by Common Ground, a student organization supporting the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community, Feb. 19. Lapin said he was asked to participate in the event after the group, unaware of his ties to NKU, found his Web site. However, he said he ultimately decided not to participate because he had some of the concerns as the administration and his supervisors had.
When originally asked why he chose not to participate, Lapin only cited “personal reasons” and refused to make additional comment. The Northerner then obtained e-mail messages sent to and from Lapin via an open records request pertaining to the Common Ground event. These e-mails revealed Lapin and others were concerned that he was being intimidated and that he was questioned about the event’s legality.
CONCERNS FROM HIS SUPERVISORS
“The event is going to happen. I’d like your advice. Do you think I should withdraw my offer to assist them? Do you think my participation might be harmful to my career?” Lapin asked in an e-mail sent to his supervisor, Vicki Culbreth, director of educational outreach.
The e-mail asking for her advice was sent after Culbreth said she contacted Lapin out of curiosity and after the information about the event was forwarded to her by her supervisor, Associate Provost for Research Salina Shrofel.
Shrofel said she did not speak directly with Lapin about the issue, but confirmed that she spoke personally with Culbreth about the event and suggested calling Lapin. She said this was because she had heard about the ceremony and was worried about whether it might impact “the legislation to achieve benefits for same-sex marriages,” referring to the proposed bill that would not allow universities to choose to extend health benefits to employee’s domestic partners.
When asked how the wedding ceremony could affect the legislation, Shrofel said, “Everything has an effect on everything.”
Lapin said he shared the concern that the ceremony could affect the legislation. However, the advice-seeking e-mail to Culbreth indicated that several sources had told Lapin that the event would not create a problem for the legislation.
Despite her concern, Shrofel said she never would have asked Lapin not to participate.
“No, I don’t think anyone would have,” Shrofel said.
Both Lapin and Culbreth confirmed that Culbreth’s response to the advice-seeking e-mail was that Lapin’s job was absolutely not in jeopardy. In addition, Lapin said he did not feel that his job was ever threatened.
Although Lapin is a faculty member, Culbreth said she advised Lapin that if he were to be interviewed by the local media that he should say he was acting only in his capacity as a minister.
Lapin also indicated that Culbreth was helpful with her advice.
“She has been absolutely as supportive as anyone could have been,” Lapin said.
While Lapin said that he never felt that his job was threatened, in his e-mails, he indicated felt pressured.
“The pressure was inappropriate, and even more so due to its indirectness,” Lapin wrote in an e-mail response to a colleague, John Alberti, the assistant chair to the Department of Literature and Language and professor of English.
When asked to specifically clarify his comment about the pressure being inappropriate, Lapin only said it was in reference to what Alberti discussed in an e-mail letter he sent to Votruba and Interim Vice President for Student Affairs, Zebulun Davenport. That e-mail criticized the actions taken by Lapin’s “supervisor” and called the situation an “overreaction.”
Alberti said he wrote the e-mail because he felt the actions taken were “inappropriate” because Lapin did not have tenure.
“I think (the concerns) would come across (as intimidation)ÖI think it’s unrealistic that an employer could contact an employee and not have that as a part of the context of the communication,” Alberti said. “I just think in the way it turned out, it would be inferred as intimidating (Lapin). You know, if you’ve ever had a job and your boss calls you up and says ‘look, I don’t want to tell you what to do, I just want to tell you how I feel about something,’ I think in the real world you would take that as not just as (sharing) an opinion,” he continued.
CONCERNS FROM THE ADMINISTRATION
Votruba and Davenport, who said he thought Alberti was an adviser to Common Ground (which he is not, both personally contacted Alberti about the issue. Alberti is active in the Staff, Administrators, and Faculty for Equity (SAFE) organization, a group seeking to support the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered employees for more than 10 years. SAFE also works to obtain benefits for domestic partners of employees.
“My conversation with John (Alberti) was to simply inform him that there was aÖbill out there so that he’d have information (and) to say to (Alberti), ‘just know that this is going on, so that you can be well-informed with what is going on as you all move forward with whatever you do.’,” Davenport said.
Votruba said his conversation was for the same purpose.
“I guess I don’t have a strong feeling that (the wedding ceremony) should or should not happen, but I wanted to make sure that the students understood that, this, the issue (of limiting by statute public university employee’s health benefits to not include domestic partners) itself is getting attention in Frankfort and I wanted to make sure they understood what implications could occur if additional attention is brought to it,” Votruba said.
He added that he was not sure what those implications might be.
One possible implication was local media coverage, but neither Votruba nor Davenport would confirm this was one of their concerns.
Alberti said the concerns about the ceremony having an impact on the domestic partner bill were “exaggerated.”
“I can see why [Votruba] would have these concerns, and that’s just a matter of his reading of the situation. So, I don’t have any argument with reading the situation differently, it’s what you do about it and how you act upon those concerns, and to me this went too far,” he said.
Both Davenport and Votruba said there was never an effort on their parts to try to stifle the students from holding the event. They both also said that University campuses are the place where conversations and debates like this usually happen.
In fact, Davenport said he did “partake in the event,” and he had no expectations that the event would not occur as planned.
CONCERNS FROM STUDENTS
The President’s Office received four student complaints about the issue by phone, according to Mimi Assanuvat, senior executive secretary to the president. She also said one of those was referred to the Director of Student Life, Betty Mulkey.
Mulkey said she received had one student complaint forwarded to her that the ceremony might be illegal. As a result, Mulkey sent an e-mail to Lapin questioning the legality of the ceremony.
In his e-mail response, Lapin said, “the couples will not have marriage licenses, so it is not recognized by the state as a marriage. They will only be married in the eyes of the church. Legally speaking, they are not really getting married.”
In the Commonwealth of Kentucky, neither same-sex marriages nor civil unions are legally recognized. Marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman.
COMMON GROUND REACTION AND MOVING FORWARD
“This incident is exactly the sort to reinforce cynicism in our students about political activism and the importance of free expression in a democratic society,” Alberti said in his e-mail to the administrators. “The students involved are among the most idealistic and committed on our campus, and they deserve better than to have their event undermined through the inappropriate pressure placed on a faculty member.”
At the event, most of the Common Ground leadership refused to answer questions as to whether Lapin had been pressured not to participate in the event, including Mike Volmer, the organization’s president. He indicated he was not sure it would a good idea to talk about it.
However, one of Common Ground’s members assisting in the coordination of the event, Alex Kindell, said she was aware of the pressures and understood Lapin’s decision not to participate, in an interview on the day of the event.
“I believe taking a stand on this campus is difficult thing to take especially on a divisive issue and you really have to think it through with your family and the people you care about in your life,” she said.
Kindell added that she had no hard feelings toward Lapin and valued the things he had done for the gay community. She also said she was emboldened by the pressures Lapin faced.
“I think I’m more determined to make it happen and we can plan now for future events for more opposition,” Kindell said.
Despite originally expressing her determination to make the event happen, in subsequent interviews with The Northerner, Kindell backed away from all her statements.
“My statements [are] no longer accurate or relevantÖsince they were not printed in a time wise fashion, I [cannot] stand behind them, now knowing what I know, and with the situation evolving,” Kindell explained in a Facebook message, adding that running her name or quotes in this article would discredit it. She refused to make further comment.
When first interviewed about the marriage event, Lapin said he hoped that it would still occur despite his decision not to participate. In subsequent interviews, however, he then shared that perhaps Common Ground should consider holding the event off campus, and that he provided the group with a copy of his service so that perhaps a student could officiate over the ceremony.
According to Common Ground Ambassador, Maggie Lewis, the group is still planning to have a marriage event, but are working out the details and taking more time to plan the event. She declined to name specifics until the planning was complete.
“Don’t worry, it shall be fantastic when it happens,” she said.
DOMESTIC PARTNER BENEFITS BILL
The proposed state legislation said to be behind the concerns of the supervisors, administration, and Lapin is Senate Bill 112. That bill simply adds a few definitions within state law relating to health benefits for public employees. The definitional changes would define spouse as “a person to whom the employee is legally married pursuant to Kentucky state law.” In addition, it excludes domestic partners from the definition of a “family member.”
At present, the bill has been passed by the Senate of Kentucky and is now in the Health ‘ Welfare Committee of the House of Representatives. In order to become law, the bill will need to be passed as-is by both the committee and the House and then be signed by the governor.