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October 16, 2001
Deciding Who Gets Sept. 11 Benefits
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Sept. 11 terrorism attacks changed the world, but they've left benefits administrators and the government wrestling with an old problem: Who legally constitutes immediate family?

Already, according to USA Today, leading private charities such as the American Red Cross are responding positively to gays and lesbians who claim survivor status. But whether a new federal fund to compensate survivors will - or should do so is an open question.

Some social policy experts say Congress and the courts ought to change or skirt marriage and adoption rules to recognize domestic partners and gay parents.

"It's a tragedy that changes the landscape. Something in me balks at the notion that we're going to say, 'You are mourning and devastated, but you don't qualify for help,'" says Jean Bethke Elsthain, ethics professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

"Erring on the side of inclusivity and generosity," she continued, "is much closer to Christian understanding of the human person than a cramped and narrowly legalistic approach."

But others see no semantic maneuvering room for U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, as his Justice Department prepares rules and procedures, due by Dec. 22, for a special federal compensation fund that may surpass $15 billion.

The fund, designed to bail out the devastated airline industry, also is intended to serve as an alternative to civil lawsuits for "relatives" of those killed and injured by the attacks.

Without marriage licenses or birth certificates or co-parent adoption paperwork, gay partners and parents have "no mechanism for establishing a legal relationship, (so) they will not be allowed to be compensated for their enormous losses," says Jennifer Middleton, a lawyer for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Unless a homosexual partner or parent is named in a will, "they will be out of luck," labor lawyer Tom Demetrio predicts, "just the same as if their loved one were hit by a train. Theoretically, Ashcroft has carte blanche. But I don't believe he will promulgate any regulation that will fly in the face of traditional tort law."

So far, nearly a dozen gay victims have been named, including New York Fire Department chaplain Mychal Judge, killed in the World Trade Center collapse; David Charlebois, the Washington, D.C., co-pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon; and San Francisco public relations executive Mark Bingham, a passenger who fought the hijackers aboard Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania.

Gay groups are steering survivors to charities such as the Red Cross that define family more liberally in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Conservatives such as the Rev. Louis Sheldon, Traditional Values Coalition chairman, say that if the federal government joins charities in recognizing homosexual relationships on par with traditional one-man/one-woman marriage, gay groups will unquestionably seek to "redefine what marriage is and how marriage functions and who enters into marriage."

To view the USA Today story, click here.

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