Michigan Ban on Domestic Partner Benefits Blocked

By | July 1, 2013

A federal judge has blocked Michigan’s ban on domestic partner benefits for employees who work for public schools or local governments, saying state lawmakers simply wanted to punish gays and lesbians.

U.S. District Judge David Lawson said plaintiffs who have lost benefits or were forced to buy expensive private health insurance have made a “plausible claim” that the law violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The decision came nearly a year after he heard arguments in the lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“It is hard to argue with a straight face that the primary purpose indeed, perhaps the sole purpose – of the statute is other than to deny health benefits to the same-sex partners of public employees. But that can never be a legitimate governmental purpose,” Lawson said as he ordered an injunction.

The law, passed in 2011 by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, ended insurance for people whose domestic partners work for certain public employers. It’s somewhat narrow, exempting colleges and universities, as well as most state government workers whose benefits are set by the Michigan Civil Service Commission.

A handful of school districts had offered benefits before the law took effect in 2012, along with Ingham and Washtenaw counties and the cities of Ann Arbor, East Lansing and Kalamazoo, according to the ACLU.

Supporters of the law say it saves tax dollars and follows the spirit of a 2004 constitutional amendment, approved by 58 percent of voters, that defines marriage only as a union between a man and a woman.

Lawson, however, said that argument stinks. The state’s claims “come close to striking (the court) with the force of a 5-week-old, unrefrigerated dead fish,” he said.

In his 51-page opinion, Lawson cited this week’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down a portion of a federal law that barred certain benefits to married same-sex couples.

“This is great news. It’s a very mean-spirited law,” said Lansing piano teacher Gerado Ascheri, 55, who has been paying $460 a month after losing better, less expensive health coverage through his partner’s employer, Ingham County.

Barbara Ramber, 54, said she and partner JoLinda Jach, 49, have paid more than $4,000 in out-of-pocket expenses since Ramber lost insurance through the city of Kalamazoo. She has glaucoma and other eye ailments but her replacement insurance isn’t generous.

“I’m optimistic and prayerful the city of Kalamazoo will reinstate the insurance,” said Ramber, who lives in Kalamazoo Township and works part-time in a school cafeteria.

Although the injunction doesn’t end the case, Michigan ACLU legal director Michael Steinberg said the law clearly is doomed. He said any public school district or local government now can choose to restore or create benefits for same-sex couples or unmarried heterosexual couples.

“The judge was absolutely correct in finding that the law was unconstitutional because it’s motivated by bigotry,” Steinberg said.

Snyder’s office said the governor will review the ruling and consult with the state attorney general “to determine any next steps.”

“Public Act 297 of 2011 was about ensuring fiscal responsibility and stewardship as domestic partner benefit policies, regardless of sexual orientation, can be written without real parameters and Michigan has to address the spiraling costs of health care for the benefit of our state’s taxpayers and all Michiganders,” Snyder’s office said in a statement late Friday.

The state, of course, still could appeal. The attorney general’s office, which defended the law in court, had no comment. Ari Adler, spokesman for House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, said the law’s supporters still stand behind it.

Sen. Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing, leader of Senate Democrats, praised the judge and said she’s “disheartened that our governor wouldn’t stand up for equality in the first place” and veto the bill.

Separately, another judge is considering whether to strike down Michigan’s nearly 9-year-old ban on same-sex marriage. It’s not known when U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman will make a decision.

Associated Press writer David Eggert in Lansing contributed to this story.

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