The University has long been regarded as a bastion of tolerance, progressive thinking and action. Complications arising from a 7-year-old state amendment, however, make it difficult to maintain this status in relation to the treatment of homosexual couples and their health care benefits.

The discrepancy in health benefits was brought up in a recent study conducted by University alum Gilia Smith, who gave a presentation last week to the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs — the lead faculty governing body — on the inequality regarding benefits given to same-sex couples compared to those given to married couples. According to Smith, the primary issue with the University’s policy is that an employee in a non-married relationship, whether same-sex or heterosexual, must live with his or her partner for at least six months before the partner is eligible for health benefits. Smith asserts this policy would not be acceptable if it were associated with any other demographic like race.

With this policy, the University aims to circumvent restrictions on same-sex couples’ health benefits that were established in a ballot initiative that banned gay marriage and was approved by Michigan voters in 2004. In the case of married couples at the University, partners automatically receive benefits, since their marital status mandates their legal and financial dependence. The University’s policy serves as a loophole for same-sex couples by using six months of coexistence as a means of recognizing dependency between partners and a need for shared health care benefits. While the University’s policy has good intent, it still forces co-dependent same-sex couples to wait six months to establish their need for benefits, while a heterosexual couple receives their benefits immediately upon marriage.

There’s probably a better way to achieve the goal of equitable benefits for deserving couples — perhaps proof of co-dependency instead of residency would be more effective. University action to prevent the resulting inequality might include a closer investigation of how people are associated with each other. Though this solution is not ideal — and indeed potentially invasive and costly — the initiative would be better than the current stopgap measure that makes same-sex couples wait for significant benefits that they should be entitled to.

It’s important to note the underlying issue is with the proposal itself, not misconduct by the University. The draconian ballot initiative that amended the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman — and banned civil unions — has left the University’s hands tied. It has been forced to rely on a loophole in order for same-sex couples to be provided with benefits. This needs to be reversed and is as much of a priority as the ailing economy. Under our Constitution, basic civil rights need to be guaranteed for all citizens, including same-sex couples.

By virtue of the 2004 ballot initiative Proposal 2, Michigan voters made it very difficult for the University to protect rights of the LGBTQ community. But difficult doesn’t mean impossible. Regardless of any hurdles it may face, the University should make an even greater effort to combat the inequality exposed by Smith. Michigan voters should take note of the University’s efforts and take action to reverse the deleterious effects of the constitutionally embedded gay marriage ban.

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