Even though the U.S. House of Representatives revised the Employment Non-Discrimination Act last week to protect gay men, lesbians and bisexuals in the workplace, Michigan continues to debate extending health care benefits to the same-sex partners of employees. State Attorney General Mike Cox has used the state’s ballot proposal banning gay marriage to manipulate of the will of the voters by also banning same-sex benefits.
Such discrimination must be overturned by the courts. The ease with which the amendment has been manipulated by one politician should also serve as a warning to voters of the dangers of passing complex legislation through broad ballot initiatives.
Michigan voters passed the gay marriage ban in 2004, making an amendment to the state constitution. Cox used that ban to also decree that state institutions can no longer provide benefits to partners of same-sex couples, and a lower court upheld that interpretation in February. The Michigan chapter of the ACLU, representing the 21 gay couples who are appealing the February ruling, is now arguing the case in the state Supreme Court.
The gay marriage ban is itself an abhorrently prejudiced legislation, even without Cox’s further discriminatory interpretations. Cox claims it was the voters’ will to also ban same-sex benefits, but there was nothing in the ballot language about that. In fact, a 2005 poll indicated that a plurality of voters supports granting benefits to same-sex partners of Michigan employees – something Michigan has always done in the past, regardless of the legality of gay marriage. Outlawing gay marriage and banning same-sex benefits are in no way congruent, and voting for one does not entail prohibiting the other.
Should the ACLU succeed in its appeal, it would mark not only a victory for gay rights advocates but also for the University environment. A ruling in Cox’s favor would translate into both a step backward for civil rights and difficulties for the University in attracting and retaining talented professors. Some University professors whose partners currently receive benefits have already said that they might leave if their benefits are cut. In the face of a struggling economy and growing unemployment in Michigan, the University cannot afford to lose educated professionals who would build an educated workforce for the state.
Unfortunately, harmful legislation will continue to plague Michigan as long as half-baked ballot initiatives appear on the ballot. Such initiatives undermine the concept of representative democracy by side-stepping debate on the most important issues. Voters cannot possibly have all the information or understand the intricacies of issues like gay marriage and affirmative action. It is the job of the legislature to debate and pass laws concerning all issues; we shouldn’t be bypassing that all-important step in the legislative process for purely political reasons.
With the passage of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the time is ripe for progress. While the University has tried to maintain the right to provide same-sex benefits to employees through its own vaguely worded provisions, it will become impossible to do so if Cox succeeds in court. The LGBT community deserves recognition and approval of its rights, which the court should not hesitate to grant.