Judge Limits Michigan Marriage Ban

Public employees can still receive domestic partner benefits

In a significant ruling that rejects the position taken by Michigan’s attorney general, Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Joyce Draganchuk ruled on September 27 that the anti-gay marriage amendment that voters in that state added to their constitution last year does not ban domestic partnership health benefits for public employees.

The amendment, supported by an overwhelming majority of the voters, states: “To secure and preserve the benefits of marriage for our society and for future generations of children, the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose.”

Seizing on the “for any purpose” language, Republican Attorney General Michael Cox issued an opinion arguing that the amendment bars public employers from providing domestic partnership benefits to their workers. As a result of Cox’s opinion, collective bargaining over a demand for domestic partnership benefits for state employees represented by Local 6000 of the United Auto Workers was suspended, and the city of Kalamazoo, which had been providing such benefits to its employees, announced it would suspend the benefits program effective January 1 unless a court issued a contrary view. Several public universities and colleges that provide such benefits to their employees were also potentially affected, but so far none has rescinded benefits programs.

The lawsuit, brought by National Pride at Work, a gay employees’ group, and about 40 individuals directly affected by Cox’s opinion, sought a declaration from the court that the attorney general was wrong. They argued that there is a huge distinction between health benefit programs adopted by employers, and the state actually “recognizing” a same-sex marriage or even a civil union. Several public universities that provide partner benefits to their employees filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the plaintiffs.

Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat and nominally the lead defendant, actually called on the court to interpret the amendment to allow the state to resume negotiations for partner benefits in its collective bargaining agreements. The City of Kalamazoo, the other named defendant, refrained from taking a position.

After concluding that the intent of the people in approving the amendment was a key concern, Draganchuk asserted, “The stated purpose of the amendment is ‘to secure and preserve the benefits of marriage for our society and for future generations of children.’ Health care benefits are not among the statutory rights or benefits of marriage. An individual does not receive health care benefits for his or her spouse as a matter of legal right upon getting married. If a spouse receives health care benefits, it is as a result of a contractual provision or policy directive of the employer. Likewise, health care benefits are not limited to those who are married.”

Cox, who had intervened in the case as a defendant because Granholm and the city of Kalamazoo were not really defending his interpretation of the amendment, argued that any government employer’s extension of benefits to a domestic partner constituted the government’s “recognition” of the partner as having a relationship to the employee, violating the provision that such relationships not be recognized for “any purpose.”

The judge rejected this reasoning.

“The provision requires that only a union between one man and one woman will be recognized ‘as a marriage or similar union,” Draganchuk wrote. “The employer-defined criteria for obtaining the health insurance benefits in this case are not based on marriage.’” She found it easy to conclude that the limited criteria employed to find eligibility for the health care benefits did not “act as recognition of ‘a union similar to marriage,’” because marriage carries with it a broad panoply of statutory rights, none of which is available to domestic partners.

“The criteria, even when taken together, pale in comparison to the myriad of legal rights and responsibilities accorded to those with marital status,” Draganchuk wrote. In her view, the health benefits are “employment benefits,” not “benefits of marriage.”

The question remaining is whether Cox will appeal the ruling and, assuming he has ambitions in Republican politics, one would expect that a prompt appeal will be filed.

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