An Ingham County Circuit Court judge ruled yesterday that a constitutional amendment reaffirming Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage does not prevent public entities from providing domestic partner benefits to their employees.

Yesterday’s decision will not alter the University’s policy of providing benefits such as health insurance to the same-sex partners of its employees, which is still vulnerable to litigation.

University President Mary Sue Coleman said last December that the University would go to court to defend partner benefits if faced with a legal challenge.

The ruling, however, has an impact on Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s contract with state employees because the governor was expected to allow domestic partner benefits if a judge ruled them to be legal under Proposal 2, which bans same-sex marriage in the state of Michigan.

Liz Boyd, a spokeswoman for the governor, indicated yesterday that domestic partner benefits would in fact be reinstated in the state-employee contract, which is scheduled to take effect Oct. 1.

“It appears the legal cloud has been lifted and the benefits negotiated at the bargaining table now can be submitted to the bipartisan Civil Service Commission for approval,” she said in a statement. The commission must ratify the contract before it can take effect.”

Citing the same “legal cloud” of uncertainty hovering over the legality of partner benefits, Granholm removed the benefits from the contract and said she would reinstate them in the event of a ruling explicitly allowing her to do so.

The University will not have to make any changes to policy because of the ruling, but Coleman expressed satisfaction with the ruling and reiterated the importance of such perks for employers competing for top faculty.

“I’m absolutely delighted,” she said. “This is really great for our employees.”

“It’s critical for our recruitment and retention of faculty and staff,” she added.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in March asking the Ingham court to determine if domestic partner benefits are allowed under Michigan’s constitution.

Granholm was named as a defendant in the ACLU suit that resulted in yesterday’s decision in part because of her caution in providing benefits to state employees, said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of 21 same-sex couples.

“It was premature,” he said, referring to the governor’s action.

Kaplan said Granholm should have kept the benefits in the contract even without an explicit ruling in favor of benefits, as the University has done.

He said yesterday’s ruling, though issued in a circuit court, was binding on all parties named in the lawsuit – including Granholm and the city of Kalamazoo.

Kalamazoo announced it would stop its domestic partner benefits Jan. 1, 2006 after state Attorney General Mike Cox issued a nonbinding opinion stating that the city’s policy was in violation of Michigan’s constitution, which was amended when voters passed Proposal 2 last year.

The city has indicated it will defer to yesterday’s decision on partner benefits.

Kaplan invoked the opinion of the state’s electorate to defend yesterday’s decision.

“We don’t think it was the voters’ intention to take away health insurance from same-sex partners,” he said.

Supporters of Prop. 2 said before last November’s election that the ballot measure was not intended to deny partner benefits, merely to protect marriage as the exclusive province of heterosexual couples.

But the Ann Arbor-based Thomas More Law Center appealed a 2003 decision in favor of the Ann Arbor Public Schools earlier this year, claiming the school’s policy of providing partner benefits was in violation of the new amendment. The center has indicated the University may be its next target.

The Ann Arbor Public Schools case, which is still pending, and future cases challenging partner benefits could result in decisions conflicting with yesterday’s ruling. Conflicting rulings would provide a basis for an appeal to a higher court. Yesterday’s decision could be appealed on its merits by the state’s attorney general, who intervened as a defendant in the ACLU lawsuit case, or by another aggrieved party.

Kaplan affirmed the ACLU’s commitment to defend partner benefits if further legal challenges arise.

“If it’s appealed, we’re prepared to take this issue all the way through the courts,” he said.

The ACLU’s lawsuit sought a declaratory judgment from Circuit Judge Joyce Draganchuk interpreting the amendment as not prohibiting domestic partner benefits.

The issue hinged on whether providing partner benefits constituted a recognition of same-sex marriage.

Draganchuk’s opinion relied on the wording of the amendment, which states as its purpose the preservation of “the benefits of marriage,” to decide in favor of partner benefits.

“Health care benefits are not among the statutory rights or benefits of marriage,” she wrote in her opinion.

Instead, she wrote that health care benefits should be provided to individuals bearing some relation to employees at the discretion of employers.

“Health care benefits are benefits of employment, not benefits of marriage,” she wrote, adding that hundreds of benefits granted to heterosexual couples are currently denied to same-sex couples even when employer benefits are factored in.

In regards to Cox’s opinion that partner benefits are a recognition of same-sex unions, Draganchuk’s decision stated the provision of benefits does not establish a union because the requirements to qualify for benefits differ by employer and because they cannot grant recognition to a relationship not sanctioned by state law.

For the time being, the ACLU is savoring its victory.

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