Marriage amendment does not reach the workplace

Judge rules same-sex partners will keep benefits

By BTL Staff

In a victory for Michigan same-sex couples, a state judge ruled Tuesday that public employers are not prohibited from offering domestic partner benefits to employees. The request for a declaratory judgment was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan on behalf of 21 same-sex couples who were in danger of losing health care benefits after Proposal 2, the anti-gay marriage ban, passed in November 2004.

"Today's ruling affirms that Michigan voters never intended to take health insurance away from families," said Deborah LaBelle, the lead attorney for ACLU of Michigan. "Employers, including the State of Michigan, can now continue to support fairness and equity in the workplace by offering domestic partner benefits. LGBT employees can also be assured that their partners and children will have access to health care."

In the opinion, Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Joyce Dragonchuk makes it clear that the constitutional amendment does not impact domestic partner benefits. She wrote, "Health care benefits are not among the statutory rights or benefits of marriage. An individual does not receive health care benefits for his or her spouse as a matter of legal right upon getting married."

Judge Dragonchuk goes on to write, "Health care benefits for a spouse are benefits of employment, not benefits of marriage."

"It's a really good decision," said Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan's executive director.

"We're hopeful that Governor Granholm will reinstate domestic partner benefits as part of the negotiated contract between the state and its employees as she has previously indicated she would," said Jay Kaplan, Staff Attorney for the LGBT Project of the ACLU.

In a letter from the Governor to the LGBT community, dated Dec. 3, 2004, the governor stated that if the court found domestic partnerships to be lawful, the state "will move forward with their implementation." The City of Kalamazoo, which previously announced that it will discontinue its provision of domestic partner benefits as of Jan. 1, 2006, has also indicated that it would defer to the court's interpretation of the amendment.

The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU in March, came after Governor Granholm announced that a "legal cloud" existed and DP benefits for employees and families would be withheld pending a judicial decision interpreting whether the language of the constitutional amendment, which limits marriage to a man and a woman in Michigan, prohibits the provision of benefit packages.

Both state and local governmental agencies, represented by the Michigan Corrections Organization, Michigan State Employees Association, Service Employees International Union, AFSCME and UAW, had successfully bargained for a jobs benefits package that was scheduled for ratification by the State Civil Service Commission on Dec. 15, 2004. The package included medical benefits and family medical leave for their families, including domestic partners and their children.

In March, Attorney General Michael Cox issued a non-binding opinion that the marriage amendment bars the City of Kalamazoo from offering DP benefits in future contracts. The attorney general is also an intervening defendant in the lawsuit.

The couples are represented by ACLU cooperating attorney Deborah Labelle of Ann Arbor; Thomas Wilczak, Barbara Buchanan, Kurt Kissling and Amanda Shelton the Detroit law firm of Pepper Hamilton; Nancy Katz of Plymouth; Professor Roderick Hills of the University of Michigan Law School; and ACLU staff attorneys Jay Kaplan and Michael J. Steinberg.

To read more about National Pride At Work v. Granholm, including the legal documents, go to www.aclumich.org/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=426.

The ACLU of Michigan recently released "Families Under Attack: Real Stories of Michigan Families" to educate the public about the issues that LGBT families encounter on a daily basis. To read the publication, go to: http://www.aclumich.org/pubs/storyproject.pdf.

To read Judge Joyce Dragonchuk's decision, go to: http://www.aclumich.org/pdf/briefs/dplawsuitdecision.pdf.

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