Shannon Clarkson Petition
Shannon Clarkson asks for support in dispute with Board of Pensions
The following is from Shannon. At the end of this letter is an email that I have sent to the Board of Pensions. I hope you are able to help… Thanks, Ray
As you may know, when Letty Russell died in 2007 the Pension Board refused to provide me with the survivor’s pension benefits that would have been due to me if Letty and I had been a heterosexual married couple. Several years later, in 2012, the Presbyterian Board of Pensions changed their policy regarding same sex marriages or civil unions and began allowing individuals in these circumstances eligibility for survivor’s pension payments. When this happened, I contacted the Board and asked if I could receive Letty’s pension. I was told that this would not be possible as she died before the ruling was changed. I was surprised a year later, to discover the US Government had no problem allowing me to receive Letty’s Social Security allotment, even though she had died earlier. The state, not the theological institution, showed understanding and compassion.
Here is the paragraph from the initial page on Letty Russell’s contract of January 1, 1959:
“The member accepts this certificate with the understanding and on the express condition that the Service Pension Plan as now existing or as subsequently altered or amended is or shall then become a part of this Certificate as though originally stated in this Certificate of Participation.”
My reading of the above quote says that as the pension is “altered or amended,” same sex spouses would now be eligible to receive the pension of their deceased partner. The Presbyterian Church’s ruling that makes same sex partners or spouses eligible for survivor’s pension benefits does not state that the deceased partner need have died prior to the new ruling.
In 2012, I contacted everyone I knew, along with the groups acting on behalf of same sex partners, to see if others might fall into the same situation. No one knew of anyone else besides me.
Hans Hoekendijk was Letty’s husband for five years until his heart attack in 1975. Had she predeceased him, he would have been a pension beneficiary. I was Letty’s partner for 32 years and for the last 2 of those years we were able to become civil partners in the eyes of our state and we had become domestic partners 15 years earlier.
Letty worked in two East Harlem Presbyterian churches to earn her pension. New York City and New York State law provides that as her surviving civil union partner/spouse, I am entitled to receive survivor’s pension benefits. But, because the Board of Pensions is headquartered in Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania law does not afford the same protection from discrimination to same-sex spouses in Pennsylvania as New York’s city and state laws do, the Board of Pensions is trying to get away with not paying survivor’s pension benefits to me—even though Letty worked in NYC to earn this pension.
The date set for the Settlement Conference in NYC is December 19th, 2016.
If you are interested and willing, you could write a letter or email (email preferred) to:
Patricia M. Haines, Executive Vice-President
Board of Pensions
2000 Market Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103-3298
From That All May Freely Serve:
In speaking with Shannon, the content of the email can be brief. It can be a message of support in just a few words or more extensive. It is about what is right and just and fair and we hope that you will take a few moments to join us in this request to step back, embrace those left behind and then move on more together than before. Thank you, Ray.
This is the email that was sent by me:
Dear Patricia, (at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Greetings to you and all the members of the Board of Pensions, especially during this time of remembering the Birth of Jesus that continues to calls us into the world with love and justice reflected in our hearts and our actions.
Patricia, I am writing in support of Shannon Clarkson’s petition before the Board requesting survival benefits of her long-time spouse, The Rev. Dr. Letty Russell. As a member of the LGBTQ community, my experience includes living in a time when laws and conditions have changed in response to what was long overdue and needed to be amended. Too often, however, the time of implementation becomes a hard and fast dividing line, establishing the calculus of who is accorded the new benefits — and who isn’t. What is forgotten, at times, is that the changes were brought about because that which existed before was unfair, wrong and often harmful to others. I think it is this point which reflects the heart of the argument in deciding whether or not Shannon receives the benefits of her deceased spouse. This challenge highlights the lives of those who have lived during periods of duress or exclusion, often paying an enormous price so that justice might be won. In other words, they were “right” before our laws or designs changed to “make it right.” It is not fair and not “church” to leave them behind. They are, in so many ways, the ones to first consider and honor.
So, I ask that you consider and honor the petition before you and resolve it in favor of Shannon Clarkson. It is one of very few, if any, that will surface along these lines, yet its importance underscores the love we recognize in those who have faithfully responded to their call to serve in the struggles they have endured for us all.
It would also be a wonderful gesture during this time to lift up Christmas in a way that touches the heart of who and whose we are with a gift of compassion and acknowledgment for what is the right thing to do.
Thank you for your consideration of this request.
(Rev.) Ray Bagnuolo, Chaplain
That All May Freely Serve