It can be said with great certainty that
150 years ago, the majority of Americans did not support either
equal rights for blacks or suffrage for women. Today, we see
discrimination on the basis of skin color or gender for what it
truly is — an injustice that undermines the very principles
of freedom, equality and opportunity this nation was founded on. On
Nov. 2, Michigan citizens will vote on Proposal 2, which seeks to
amend the state constitution so that “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.” In a display of
moral leadership, the University announced that it will continue to
provide benefits to same-sex couples.

Angela Cesere

Supporters of the proposal claim they would be defending the
sanctity of marriage by denying gay and lesbian couples the right
to marry or have their unions recognized in the eyes of the law.
The clause of the amendment that states that no union except
marriage will be recognized may automatically disqualify civil
unions or comparable arrangements, both for same-sex and
heterosexual couples. In a Sept. 22 poll conducted by the Detroit
Free Press, 53 percent of voters said they would be willing to
amend the constitution to ban gay marriage, even though same-sex
marriage is already illegal in the state.

The University has again found itself championing the minority
position on a key social issue. University spokeswoman Julie
Peterson stated, “We offer benefits in order to recruit and
retain the best and brightest employees. In other words, the
purpose of our benefits package is to keep the best employees
working in Michigan, and we don’t believe a constitutional
amendment that defines marriage is relevant to our decision about
benefits offerings. Those are different issues, so it’s
possible we would be challenged in court if the proposal were to
pass, but we would defend in court our right to offer, specifically
the same-sex domestic partner benefits that we offer.”

That carefully worded statement rightly re-affirmed the
commitment of the University to equality and civil rights, and
Peterson’s statement made it clear that the University would
be willing its defend this decision in court.

This declaration falls well within the University’s
historic role as a champion of social justice. During the Vietnam
War, Ann Arbor was host to a high number of protests against the
war. It was only a few years ago that suits were filed challenging
the University’s affirmative action policies. Instead of
dropping affirmative action, then-University President Lee
Bollinger stood firm, vowing to defend the University in court. In
2003, the case was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled
that race is a valid admissions criteria. As a consequence of
Bollinger’s firm decision to defend affirmative action,
universities around the country have been able to enact policies to
ensure racial diversity within the student bodies.

The University’s stance is no less significant. While the
University could have used the proposal as an opportunity to cut
same-sex partner benefits and assuage the pain of the budget cuts,
it took the higher moral ground. Discrimination of any sort,
whether based on race or sexual orientation, has no place in
society, and the University is right to position itself in defense
of equality. University President Mary Sue Coleman and her team of
administrators deserve high praise for their risky, yet
fundamentally correct, decision to defend the liberal and inclusive
values upon which this institution rests.

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