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August 08, 2008
No Domestic Partner Health Benefits for Public Employees

The lawsuit over whether Michigan's marriage amendment prevents employers from providing health insurance to the same-sex domestic partners of employers has now been decided by the Michigan Supreme Court.

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What happened. On December 18, 2004, Michigan's state constitution acquired a new amendment that defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The amendment (Const 1963, Art. 1, Sec. 25) reads: "To secure and preserve the benefits of marriage for our society and for future generations of children, 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."

An organization called National Pride at Work sued the state, asking the court to rule that this amendment does not prohibit public employers from providing healthcare benefits to employees' same-sex domestic partners. The trial court agreed with the group, but in February 2007, the Court of Appeals reversed that decision, holding that the marriage amendment does bar public employers from providing health insurance benefits to their employees' qualified same-sex domestic partners. National Pride appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court.

What the court said. In the early and mid-2000s, a number of public employers in Michigan offered benefits to the domestic partners of employees. The cities of Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan, and Michigan State University all provided benefits to couples who met certain requirements, such as sharing a residence and living expenses and signing a certificate of exclusive domestic partnership.

The plaintiffs argued that the only thing prohibited by the amendment was the recognition of same-sex partnerships as marriages, and that providing health insurance did not amount to recognition of unions as marriages. The Michigan Supreme Court, following the ruling of the Court of Appeals, disagreed. It found that the act of providing benefits to domestic partners had the effect of recognizing those partnerships as unions similar to marriages. It noted that employers' rules about domestic partnerships defined these unions in a fashion similar to laws specifying who can marry. For example, most employers specify the sex of the partners (i.e., same-sex) and insist that the partners could not be related by blood, both of which the court found similar to the rules applying to marriage.

The Court further found that by providing benefits to domestic partners, employers were recognizing the partnerships as valid. The justices found that this went against the language of the amendment, which makes male-female marriage the only "agreement" recognizable as a valid partnership. The amendment prohibits recognition of partnerships other than marriages "for any purpose," which the Court found to include the provision of health insurance benefits. In sum, the Supreme Court found that the amendment's purpose of preserving the benefits of marriage by prohibiting the recognition of any alternative arrangement for any purpose definitely precluded employers' providing health insurance benefits to same-sex domestic partners.

Two justices dissented, arguing that health insurance is not a benefit of marriage as defined by state law, but is instead a benefit of employment. They also expressed concern that the groups campaigning for the amendment's passage had misled voters. The amendment's chief supporters, the Michigan Christian Citizens Alliance (MCA), had reportedly promised throughout its campaign that the amendment would not prevent public employers from providing domestic partner benefits. During the lawsuit, however, the MCA argued that the amendment's language prohibited public employers from granting those benefits. The majority chose to discount this information, finding that the language of the amendment trumped any promises made to secure support for it, but the dissent feared that this would encourage organizations campaigning for causes in the future to make promises they had no intention of keeping. National Pride at Work v. Governor of Michigan, Michigan Supreme Court, No. 133429 (5/7/08).

Point to remember: The state's highest court has spoken: There will be no health insurance benefits for domestic partners of public employees.

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