The gay community’s struggle for equal rights in Michigan was dealt a setback yesterday when the state Court of Appeals granted state Attorney General Mike Cox’s motion for a stay on a lower-court ruling supporting domestic-partner benefits.
The University will continue to offer health-care benefits to the same-sex partners of its employees, University spokeswoman Julie Peterson said.
The state, however, is not immune from yesterday’s decision. Liz Boyd, spokeswoman for Gov. Jennifer Granholm, said the governor’s office will delay submitting provisions of the state-employee contract providing for domestic partner benefits to the Civil Service Commission, the body that must approve all provisions of the contract before they take effect.
The Michigan American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing 21 gay couples in the case before the Appeals Court, stressed that yesterday’s stay is in effect only until the court rules on Cox’s appeal of the lower court ruling.
“The court still needs to decide the case on its merits,” said Kary Moss, executive director of the Michigan ACLU.
Both Moss and Peterson emphasized that the stay – which itself could be appealed – changes little in the long term.
“It was really a nonruling,” Moss said, adding that the stay does not require Granholm to hold off on submitting partner benefits to the CSC.
The ACLU has criticized Granholm for exercising caution in providing same-sex benefits, which were negotiated in the state-employee contract but withheld by the governor’s office pending a court decision favoring benefits. That ruling came late last month when Ingham County Circuit Judge Joyce Draganchuk interpreted a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage as permitting domestic-partner benefits. Michigan voters approved the amendment last November.
The governor’s office and the ACLU were encouraged by the Appeals Court’s decision yesterday to expedite the appeals process – which would have otherwise taken at least several months.
“We want to see this resolved as quickly as it can be,” Moss said.
Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the Michigan ACLU, said legal briefs in the case are now due to the court by the end of next month.
Peterson said the University is likely to file a brief in support of the ACLU’s case.
She said the University will not change its policy because the stay is not binding on the University.
“What the Court of Appeals ruling does is return things to the status quo (prior to the lower court’s decision),” she said. The stay temporarily voids the Ingham County ruling, which explicitly refuted Cox’s nonbinding opinion stating that Kalamazoo’s policy of providing domestic partner benefits was in violation of the 2004 amendment. The stay does not affect the University, Peterson said, because it restores an opinion that was never binding on the University in the first place.
Despite the temporary setback, the ACLU remains optimistic it will prevail in the appeal.
“We’re confident Judge Draganchuk’s ruling will be upheld,” Kaplan said.
The case could ultimately be decided by the Michigan Supreme Court, which could take up an appeal of the ACLU case or an appeal of the Appeals Court’s ruling in favor of the Ann Arbor Public Schools’ policy of offering same-sex benefits.
The court’s stay erases the need for a Senate resolution introduced last month by Sen. Alan Cropsey (R-DeWitt) calling for the state Supreme Court to halt the state’s domestic partner benefits policy until the court decides the case.
Members of the LGBT community on campus expressed concern over yesterday’s development, but put their faith in the University’s commitment to defending domestic partner benefits.
“My initial reaction is disgust,” said Jackie Simpson, interim director of the University’s LGBT Office. She said she views efforts to deny health care benefits from domestic partners as “a direct attack on the LGBT community.” “I wish they would find something else to do,” she added.
Julica Hermann, assistant director for educational outreach in the LGBT Office, said she was not deterred by yesterday’s ruling.
“We need to continue to struggle,” she said.
Simpson’s and Hermann’s concerns are mitigated by the University’s continued support of the LGBT community.
“What I am convinced of is that (University) President (Mary Sue) Coleman – will continue to offer domestic partner benefits to her employees and will take it to court if necessary,” Simpson said.
Still, she said a ruling against domestic partner benefits could deal a major blow to the University.
“There could be a drastic decrease in the LGBT faculty and staff who work at the University,” as well as the number of graduate students with families, she said. She added that an unfavorable ruling could even depress the number of LGBT undergraduates at the University, who might perceive the state as hostile to same-sex relationships.
Simpson said she agreed with Coleman that a decision striking down domestic partner benefits would make the University less competitive in attracting top LGBT faculty, for whom “health care is a major issue.”
She said the LGBT community is keeping a close eye on the outcome of the case.
“These benefits are basic things that we all need,” Hermann said.