Citing the need to attract and retain excellent employees, representatives of the state of Michigan recently completed negotiations on new contracts that would offer same-sex domestic partner benefits to state employees covered by the contract. This move, made in the face of Proposal 2 and its ban on same-sex unions, represents a valiant moral stand on the part of the state. The contract, set to take effect next year, will surely attract legal challenges. As other employers — such as the University — join the fray in defense of same-sex benefits, the legal power and influence of the state government could be a valuable asset. Basic equality is at stake, and that cause needs the state’s strongest defense.

The state contracts in question, negotiated prior to the passage of Proposal 2 in the Nov. 2 election, covers 38,000 state employees. Instead of backing down on its commitment to provide these employees with same-sex benefits following Proposal 2’s passage, the state has permitted its employees to vote on ratification of the contract. This step should serve as the first of many by the state in pioneering gay rights protections following the passage of Proposal 2. Should the employees ratify the contract, the validity of the contract will surely be called into question in a legal challenge. Having the state at its side in these legal battles would dramatically improve the University’s chances of victory. The added prestige and credibility of the state government would also help to show that offering domestic partnership benefits is a mainstream policy position.

The right to provide equal benefits to all employees serves not only those covered by the benefits but also the employer and, in this case, residents of the state. While opponents of same-sex benefits fight to close off rights protections for Michigan’s gay residents, the state as a whole stands to lose out. Michigan should not could close its doors to and shun its gay population because that population will always have the freedom to leave the state. Such an exodus would critically erode the state’s diversity and reduce the ability of the government and thousands of other employers to retain high-quality employees. We cannot bear such a cost.

In the court battles to come, in which employers will defend their decision to provide same-sex benefits, the state must embrace its role as a champion of all its residents and defend the benefits that its new contract extends to state employees. Its defense will lead the way for other employers, including the University, that will also be challenged over their right to provide equitable coverage. The validity of a simple contract could help decide the future of tolerance in the state. Indeed, what’s at stake here is the moral principle of equal protection for all under the law. The state has taken a stand in affirming its right to extend this protection, and it should continue to act in a manner guided by the principle of equity. Even in the wake of Proposal 2, it is not too late to protect the legitimate rights gays, and this contract could help the state do just that.

 

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