When Engineering Prof. Michael Falk came to the University just over six years ago, he thought his partner Matthew Scott would receive health care coverage.
It was a major factor in his decision to work at the University, he said.
“When we first arrived, I was employed and Matt wasn’t,” Falk said. “Matt wouldn’t have had any health care coverage, so it would have been very difficult for us to attain health care coverage if it hadn’t been for the University’s health care program.”
With his health care provided by the University, Scott was able to get a job at a small business in Ann Arbor.
A recent court ruling, though, may change the ability of same-sex couples like Falk and Scott to receive health care coverage from the University.
The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that the state’s 2004 constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage also prohibits public institutions from offering health care and other benefits to the partners of employees. The decision was released Friday.
The ruling is the latest in a court battle that started after the passage of the same-sex marriage ban when Attorney General Mike Cox issued a ruling that said the ban also prohibited public institutions from granting benefits to the domestic partners of their employees.
The Michigan chapter of the ACLU challenged the ruling, and a lower court ruled in its favor, saying the ban didn’t apply to the benefits.
But the appeals court overturned that ruling.
The decision could affect University employees whose same-sex partners currently receive benefits from the University.
When Michigan voters banned same-sex marriage in 2004, though, Falk and Scott began to worry that Scott could lose his coverage. Scott began looking for a job that would provide him with health benefits.
He eventually found a job managing plant collections at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, where he has worked since January 2006.
Although Falk and Scott both have health care coverage now as University employees, said they find the court’s decision troubling.
“As a family, this makes us think about the state of Michigan differently,” Falk said. “This is a state where our neighbors are students, and our students’ parents feel that it’s appropriate to turn around and take away our health benefits in order to satisfy their political desires.”
Scott said the decision has prompted him to question his opinion of the state of Michigan.
“It was a kick in the gut,” he said. “My initial reaction was, ‘I hate this state.’ I feared for the future and questioned my place as a resident of Michigan.”
According to a statement released Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union plans to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.
Laurita Thomas, the University’s associate vice president for human resources, said in a statement that the University supports the ACLU’s efforts.
She said the law permits the University to continue providing benefits though the end of the 2007 calendar year. The University needs the benefits to hire and retain talented faculty and staff members, she said.
Scott Dennis, a senior associate librarian at the University, said he and his partner Jim Etzkorn are frustrated and disappointed by the court’s ruling.
Dennis said he thought the 2004 amendment banning gay marriage contained intentionally ambiguous wording.
“I don’t think most voters wanted to eliminate domestic partnership benefits,” Dennis said. “Most voters didn’t understand that it would have this effect.”
Falk said he is pleased that the University filed an amicus brief in favor of the ACLU’s lawsuit but that it’s important for the University to take swift action in dealing with the ruling.
Many partners of employees will need time to look for jobs that offer the same benefits.
“Now that we’ve reached this juncture, it’s important that the University articulates how it will respond if the court rules against the domestic partnership policy,” he said. “People’s health benefits will be taken away, and it takes several months to find a new job.”
While Scott said he would like the University to do everything in its power to preserve the benefits, he said he recognizes its limitations.
With the ACLU’s appeal in limbo, Scott said he fears what lies ahead.
“Somebody in the state thought it would be a good idea for others not to have health benefits based on sexual orientation,” he said. “My fear is that Michigan voters won’t stop. Who knows what could be down the road?”