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April 23, 2007
Do Domestic Partner Benefits Violate Marriage Amendment?

After the passage of Michigan's 2004 marriage amendment, a gay advocacy group sued the state of Michigan, seeking a ruling that state employers such as the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and the City of Kalamazoo could continue to offer health benefits to the domestic partners of employees.

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What happened. On November 2, 2004, the voters of Michigan approved an amendment to the state constitution that defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The key language of this amendment read "the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose." The amendment became part of Michigan's constitution on December 18, 2004.

An organization called National Pride at Work sued the state, asking the court to rule that this amendment did not prohibit public employers from providing healthcare benefits to employees' same-sex domestic partners. The trial court agreed, finding that the amendment did not prevent public employers from entering into contractual agreements with their employees to provide health benefits to domestic partners. The state attorney general appealed.

What the court said. National Pride at Work argued that (1) the language of the amendment didn't prohibit public employees from offering domestic partner benefits; (2) the amendment's supporters had promised that passing the amendment wouldn't result in the loss of domestic partner benefits; and (3) if the amendment did preclude benefits, it would violate the equal protection clause and the autonomy of public universities. National Pride claimed that the amendment's statement of purpose "to secure and preserve the benefits of marriage" did not include health insurance because health insurance is not a statutory benefit of marriage.

The trial court accepted the plaintiffs' arguments. It determined that healthcare benefits are not among the legal rights and benefits of marriage and that they are instead a benefit of employment. It found that the criteria used to determine who qualified for partner benefits didn't come close to approaching the legal status of marriage. It concluded that employers that offered domestic partner benefits were not thereby recognizing a "marriage" or similar union.

The court of appeals disagreed. It focused on the amendment's language that only a union of a man and woman in marriage could be recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose.

The court reasoned that by offering domestic partner benefits, public employers were in fact recognizing same-sex (or heterosexual) domestic partnerships as marriages. To award benefits, employers require domestic partnerships to fulfill several criteria, including that there be consent, that the partners not be married to or have a similar relationship with another partner, and that the partners be of a minimum age. The court found these criteria so similar to the criteria of marriage that they effectively recognize a similar union for a particular purpose; namely, health benefits. It ruled that by offering domestic partner benefits, state employers "run directly afoul of the plain language of the amendment."

National Pride then argued that ending domestic partner benefits would violate the equal protection clause of the state constitution because it lets employers treat employees differently on the basis of marital status. The court disagreed. It noted that the marriage amendment's stated purpose is to preserve the benefits of marriage for society and generations of children; it would be rational to conclude, therefore, that the people of Michigan believed that the welfare and morals of their society would benefit from protecting traditional marriage. This constitutes a legitimate government interest, which justifies treating different groups differently.

The court of appeals reversed the trial court's decision and determined that public employers' domestic partner benefits violated the state constitution. National Pride at Work v. Governor of Michigan, Court of Appeals of Michigan, No. 265870 (2/1/07).

Point to remember: The court has spoken. Public employers can't offer domestic partner benefits to either same-sex or heterosexual couples. Expect to see this issue appealed--the court of appeals is not the highest court in the state.

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