A U.S. District Court Judge ruled Friday that a 2011 Michigan law prohibiting public employers from offering benefits to employees’ same-sex partnerships was unconstitutional. The State House Bill 4770 was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2012.
This decision comes after a week fueled with debate over rights for same-sex partners. Earlier in the week, Democrats put forward five bills on the topic of marriage equality, followed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Wednesday that the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned gay marriage at the federal level, was unconstitutional.
The AP reported that Federal Judge David Lawson said in his remarks that the Michigan law was unconstitutional as it violated the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
While the 2011 law applied to all public employees of the state, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said because of a loophole in the legal language of the University’s benefits policy, same-sex couples could technically receive benefits after the law went into effect.
“The University benefits are not offered on the basis of sex,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s basically offered on what’s called an Other Qualified Adult, or another adult living with a University employee … that is qualified for benefits. The ruling doesn’t really affect the University’s ability to offer those benefits.”
The University’s policy, which was drafted in 2008, allows OQA benefits in cases in which the employee is eligible for benefits. Those eligible for benefits are defined as another person who has shared residence with the employee for at least six continuous months and does not already receive spousal benefits.
When the bill was being considered by the Michigan legislature in 2011, University President Mary Sue Coleman and former University Provost Phil Hanlon appealed to representatives in a letter, writing that there was “no evidence that (eliminating benefits) will reduce health care costs.”
The letter stated that in 2011, 570 qualified adults and 48 dependent children depended on the domestic partner benefits.
After the bill passed, Fitzgerald said the University did not change its policy.
“At the time (the bill) was being considered it wasn’t clear where the legislature was headed with this legislation, but the University’s policy is one that we believe serves the best interests of the University and its employees,” he said.
State Rep. Adam Zemke (D—Ann Arbor) said even though the decision would not change the way the University extends benefits to its employees, he said he felt the decision would have long-term significance.
“(The reason the) University is able to do what it does is because of a gentleman’s agreement, a memorandum of understanding between the governor and the legislature and the University,” Zemke said.
He said the relationship between the governor and University could change in the future, putting the University’s policy at risk.
“When we’re talking about statutes, they are not supposed to be something easily changed throughout time,” Zemke said. “They are supposed to be something that last. And memorandums of understanding like the University’s do not hold water in a real sense as do statutes.”
The ACLU of Michigan challenged the law last year on behalf of plaintiffs who were unable to receive partner benefits because they were not married. Michigan passed a law that made for a constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage in 2004.
“We believe that this law that tells certain public employers, cities and counties, school districts that you can’t provide health insurance coverage for same-sex partners of an employee while you can provide health insurance for just about anybody else,” Jay Kaplan, an ACLU of Michigan staff attorney, said. “It’s discriminatory and its true motivation was to target gay and lesbian couples.”
Kaplan said the affected couples have suffered since the law went into effect in Dec. 2011.
“We have five plaintiff couples and three out of the five have had their partners (lose their) health insurance,” he said. “And they were forced to try to find comparable insurance policy which wasn’t easy … many of them spent a lot of money because they lost their health insurance. One of our plaintiff couples went without health insurance period because she couldn’t afford it on her own.”
Kaplan said the law blocking same-sex partner benefit also denies the dignity of the relationships and their families.
“This is the only state in the country that has a law like this that says providing health insurance (to partners) wasn’t based on recognizing the relationship, it was under different criteria that same-sex partners would be covered, made it illegal.”
State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D—Ann Arbor) said he was disappointed when the governor signed into law a bill that would revoke benefits from families.
“When the bill was passed I spoke up and said it was unconstitutional, it was discriminatory,” Irwin said. “I’m glad this judge has stepped in with the same rationale of the (U.S.) Supreme Court to rule that this law is unconstitutional, that it violates the constitutional protections of Equal Protection.”
Zemke introduced a bill earlier in the week, bringing the issue of gay marriage back as a ballot question for voters.
“It’s obviously very bad business for Michigan because it tells people that we’re not welcoming of those folks here and I think that’s bad for different reasons, but it definitely does not help economically either,” Zemke said. “Under the law we’re talking about a civil union, a relationship. And I don’t see how this would be any different.”
The temporary ban on the law will go into effect immediately though opponents are likely to file an appeal.