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March 3, 2010

ELCA Board of Pensions trustees begin process for benefit plan changes


Trustees of the Board of Pensions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have taken steps to extend various plan benefits to eligible partners in same-gender relationships.

At their Feb. 26-28 meeting in Minneapolis, the trustees adopted recommended amendments to the Board's medical and dental, retirement, survivor and disability benefits plans, plus its flexible spending plan that allows members to set aside pre-tax dollars to pay for eligible health care and dependent care expenses throughout the year.

The trustees' action is subject to review by the Conference of Bishops, which meets in Itasca, Ill., March 5-9, as well as review and possible approval by the Church Council which meets here April 9-12.

The action resulted from decisions made at the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. That assembly adopted a series of proposals which created the possibility for Lutherans in committed, lifelong, monogamous and publicly accountable same-gender relationships to serve as ELCA clergy and professional lay leaders.

The assembly also adopted a social statement on human sexuality. One of the statement's 15 implementing resolutions (#7) called for "the ELCA to amend the eligibility provisions of the ELCA Pension and Other Benefits Program, consistent with the policies of this church."

The Church Council is expected to consider a series of revisions to churchwide candidacy, ministry and discipline policies, consistent with the assembly decisions, and may adopt the revised policies when it meets in Chicago next month.

"We are committed to doing what has been mandated by the churchwide assembly," said Robert D. Berg, assistant to the president for church relations, ELCA Board of Pensions, Minneapolis.

The trustees acted as a result of a commitment on the part of the Board of Pensions to enroll eligible same-gender partners within one month of the Church Council's possible approval of new ELCA policies, Berg said.

He explained that the board wanted to be ready to implement plan changes soon after the council acts. The trustees do not have a regularly scheduled meeting again until August, he said. Berg also said that if the council amends policy proposals, the trustees are prepared to meet by teleconference to finalize Board of Pensions plan changes.

"The Board of Pensions has committed to being able to enroll eligible same-gender partners within 30 days of Church Council approval of the church's policies," wrote Robert H. Rydland, the Board's vice president and general counsel, in a Feb. 10 memo to the trustees. "Our guiding principle as we implement resolution #7 is to treat an eligible same-gender partner the same as we treat a spouse to the extent possible under each plan, and as permitted by federal law."

In addition to the proposed plan changes, the trustees reviewed proposed affidavits that would be used by the Board of Pensions to provide evidence of a same-gender partnership and evidence of the dissolution of such a partnership, for the purposes of benefit eligibility.

In his memo, Rydland wrote that because only a few states recognize "same-gender marriage," the Board of Pensions believes it is important to have affidavits on file.

"The affidavits contain important information for the member and partner regarding possible tax consequences of the benefits provided and the legal implications of signing the affidavit," he wrote. "These affidavits are not part of a plan and therefore can be revised as necessary without Church Council or Board approval."

"I thought the meeting went very well in the sense that we presented them (trustees) with the necessary information," Berg said. "There were some questions and some discussion. I think there was full understanding of their role and responsibilities as trustees."

Read the proposed Board of Pensions plan changes and other related documents at the ELCA Web site.

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