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Benefits denied

Focus on the Family gets lashing as city health plan dies

These are truly the last days.  Religious activist Mike McKee
  • These are truly the last days. Religious activist Mike McKee

Focus on the Family came out victorious, but bruised, this week in its latest battle against expanding healthcare benefits for City of Colorado Springs employees and their families.

The conservative Christian organization mobilized hundreds of its supporters to call and e-mail City Council members, urging them to defeat a benefits proposal that was on the agenda for Tuesday's council meeting.

The proposal, which would have allowed employees to add a domestic partner, an adult child or a parent to their healthcare plans, ultimately lost on a 5-4 vote.

Focus opposed the plan because it would have included same-sex partners of city employees -- something its backers said would undermine traditional marriage.

But while the ministry was satisfied with the outcome of the debate, it took a verbal lashing from council members who said the organization had defamed and threatened them in the days leading up to the vote.

Councilmen Jerry Heimlicher and Larry Small, who supported the benefits expansion, both said Focus representatives had threatened to launch recall efforts against them if they voted for the plan.

"Go ahead, if that's what you want to do," Small said from the dais. "You can't intimidate me."

Heimlicher said Focus members, including Tom Minnery, the organization's public policy director who attended Tuesday's meeting, had accused him of being a "lackey" of the gay-rights movement and opposed to traditional marriage.

"I don't appreciate their tactics," an irritated Heimlicher said.

Ready and prepared

Councilmen Small, Heimlicher and Scott Hente had been in Focus' crosshairs because all three had said during their election campaigns last year that they opposed the city's benefits policy at the time, which covered same-sex partners.

The City Council had initially voted to provide same-sex benefits in December of 2002, but after a major shakeup in the April 2003 elections, the new Council voted, 8-1, to rescind the benefits.

Shortly after, a citizens group led by Independent publisher John Weiss pitched council members a "compromise" plan that would allow city employees to insure a domestic partner of the same or opposite sex, an adult child, or a parent. The plan would, in theory, not cost any taxpayer money because employees would pay the full premium for anyone added to the plan.

Heimlicher, Hente and Small got behind the proposal, along with Vice Mayor Richard Skorman, who has consistently favored domestic-partner benefits.

Focus members responded by accusing Heimlicher, Hente and Small of having broken their word. The new plan, they claimed, was still just a "masked" attempt to promote gay rights.

At Tuesday's meeting, Focus official Peter Brandt said council members were "hiding" behind the plan's new provisions "for political cover."

Clockwise from top left, council members Heimlicher, Hente, Small and Radford.
  • Clockwise from top left, council members Heimlicher, Hente, Small and Radford.

Other opponents quoted the Bible and questioned council members' religious faith. Religious activist Mike McKee told council members backing the plan that they would be punished in the afterlife.

"These are truly the last days," McKee said. "Be ready and be prepared. ... Your reward isn't here; it's in heaven."

Several audience members responded with shouts of "Amen!"

A great divide

The council members targeted by the religious wrath denied breaking their pledges, noting the new health plan was different from the one they had opposed.

The old insurance program, Small said, extended a "special benefit" to gays and lesbians at taxpayers' expense while denying benefits to unmarried heterosexual partners. The new plan, he said, would be fair to everyone and would cost taxpayers nothing.

Hente blasted Focus as a "supposed faith-based organization" that had inflamed the debate by misconstruing the plan as an ungodly promotion of gay marriage. The point of the plan, Hente said, was to find a unifying compromise.

"It's not a question of one's faith," Hente said. "It's not a statement about homosexuality. ... This is about healing a great divide that exists in our community."

Heimlicher said the proposal could help the city grow beyond its reputation as a place of intolerance -- a reputation he said could hurt the city economically. "The issue here is the image of our city and what we can do about it."

Vice Mayor Skorman, meanwhile, said the issue was simply one of taking care of city employees and their families.

"This is about people who are human beings, who need to go to the doctor," Skorman said. "They're human beings who feel pain and get sick."

No mind changed

About 40 people addressed the Council during the debate, with proponents of the benefits plan slightly outnumbering opponents.

In the end, however, the debate didn't seem to change anyone's mind. The same five council members who had long leaned against the proposal -- Margaret Radford, Tom Gallagher, Darryl Glenn, Randy Purvis and Mayor Lionel Rivera -- voted against it.

Rivera and Glenn said analyses of the plan by insurance experts indicated it could still end up increasing costs to taxpayers, even though employees would pay the full premium for adding family members.

Radford said that no matter how it was portrayed, the proposal came down to a moral debate. It's the Council's job to find common ground, but "there is no common ground on moral issues," she said.

Purvis said he had heard no good reason to expand benefits. While some proponents said it would help the city recruit and retain employees, Purvis said the city doesn't have a high employee turnover rate.

-- Terje Langeland

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