Aside from its more obvious implications, Proposal 2, the constitutional amendment passed by voters last November that defines marriage as a legal enterprise between a man and a woman, were concerned opponents who worried that same-sex couples were at risk of losing their domestic partnership benefits such as health insurance. To her credit, University President Mary Sue Coleman stood staunchly in her position that the new amendment would not affect the University’s ability to provide such benefits. Gov. Jennifer Granholm, however, held a much more tentative posture, maintaining the state would provide domestic partnership benefits only if a judge found them legal. This past Tuesday, a state circuit court ruled just that, saying that the city of Kalamazoo must continue to provide same-sex benefits to city employees.
The ruling allowed those receiving benefits to breathe a sigh of relief, if only temporarily. Less than a week after the court’s decision, state Attorney General Mike Cox appealed the case to a higher court.
With such a powerful list of proponents, Proposal 2 will continue to be referenced in attempts to limit the scope of same-sex benefits. The persistence of powerful ideologues like Cox cries out for a counterweight – for the support and dedication of an institutional giant like the University. If same-sex benefits are to be saved permanently, the University must recognize its institutional capacity to influence policy and the increasingly critical role it can play in this ongoing battle for universal equality under the law.
In response to Cox’s appeal, Coleman announced her decision to file an amicus brief defending partnership benefits in appeals court. Having already filed a similar statement in circuit court, Coleman’s move is an encouraging display of the administration’s support.
With a nationally reputable namesake, a powerful lobbying arm and a larger operating budget than the city of Detroit, the University is in a unique position to lend a hand. It needn’t look far for a place to start; the Ann Arbor school system is already embroiled in a legal struggle to retain its authority to provide partner benefits for same-sex employees.
On a more practical level, the University has a strong incentive to fight for parity in its own work environment. As it continues to compete with top-caliber institutions for researchers and faculty, the University can never be placed in a situation where it’s forced to deprive anyone of normal contractual benefits. Competing for faculty with a discriminatory benefits policy is not only unethical, but disadvantageous.
Until the courts or legislative bodies solidify such benefits into law, the University should do everything in its faculties to further this cause. Even though these recent lawsuits do not directly involve the University, administrators should recognize that protecting same-sex benefits is a statewide issue. To deny health benefits to same-sex partners is to blatantly discriminate against sexual orientation, and it is the University’s responsibility as an employer and socially aware institution to provide moral, financial and legal support.