Breaking: Michigan Supreme Court hears domestic partner benefits case

Court presses for how benefits mean marriage rights

by Todd A. Heywood

Capitol Correspondent

LANSING- The Michigan Supreme Court today heard oral arguments in a case court watchers said will have national implications. The case, Pride at Work v. Granholm explores whether an amendment voters added to the state Constitution in 2004 defining marriage as between one man and one woman prevents public employers from offering domestic partner health care benefits to same-sex couples.

The ACLU argued that a public employer voluntarily offering domestic partnerships to same-sex domestic partners did not in turn create a marriage.

Furthermore, the two groups that lead the campaign for passage of the amendment, Citizens for the Protection of Marriage and American Family Association of Michigan both insisted that the language concerned "marriage only." Campaign director Marlene Elwell, according to published reports, said: "This has nothing to do with taking benefits away. This is about marriage between a man and a woman."

In April 2005, the ACLU of Michigan filed this lawsuit on behalf of 21 families in Ingham County Circuit Court seeking a declaratory ruling that Proposal 2, which amended the Michigan Constitution in November 2004 to prohibit gay marriage, allows public employers to offering health care insurance, otherwise called domestic partnership benefits, to lesbian and gay families.

An Ingham County Circuit Court judge ruled the benefits did not violate the state constitution, but the Michigan Appeals Court ruled in February they did.

In February 2007, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled to overturn a trial courts decision that public employers may offer these benefits without violating the "marriage amendment." The ruling was appealed by Attorney General Mike Cox, who intervened as a defendant. The Supreme Court will weigh in by June of 2008 on which court was correct.

"It is potentially hugely important," said Marc Spindelman, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University and a visiting professor at the University of Michigan. "It is important nationally and if they (the Michigan Supreme Court) breaks from the Ohio court and nullifies domestic partner benefits it could set a standard."

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the Ohio marriage amendment only impacted actual relationships that contained the bundle of rights attributed to marriage.

Justices here in Michigan were engaged in the oral arguments, focusing on two specific issues. First, they asked attorneys if the case was even necessary because of the implementation of new domestic partner programs which did not rely on same-sex relationships to confer benefits, but instead looked at other criteria which included living together for a specific time, sharing expenses and not being related.

The second issue the justices focused on looked at the issue of "rights bundling", as the Ohio Supreme Court did.

"Is it a similar union? It's a thin bundle, If you look at marriage as a bundle of rights, this is a thin bundle," Justice Robert Young Jr. said.

"You're equating a stick with a bundle?" Justice Stephen Markman asked. "If it is not a similar union it doesn't apply."

Spindelman said the justices' questioning might be a good sign.

"This is good news," Spindelman said. He said the focus on the bundling question could easily lead to a narrowly interpreted ruling. He also said the focus on the Other Eligible Individuals program that has been implemented at several state universities was a good technical move.

"It is heartening that the justices are asking that question, and more so that the attorney general is saying that it is right," he said. "If the current policy in use is not unconstitutional, why would the court address a policy that is no longer being used?"

Both the attorney general's office and American Family Association's Gary Glenn have said the new Other Eligible Individual programs currently implemented at Michigan State University, the City of Kalamazoo and the University of Michigan are Constitutional.

"We don't anticipate any legal challenges to that," said Assistant Attorney General Eric Restuccia when asked by one of the justices if the new policy was acceptable.

"They may be constitutional. I don't anticipate further lawsuits on that particular question," said Gary Glenn, president of the Midland-based American Family Association of Michigan.

"The blowback appears to be lined up along the other side," Spindelman said. "The unreasonable image of denying health benefits looks like someone is trying to put their religious scruples on others."

Online:

American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan: http://www.aclumich.org

American Family Association of Michigan: http://www.afamichigan.org

Attorney General Mike Cox: http://www.michigan.gov/ag

Gov. Jennifer Granholm: http://www.michigan.gov/gov

Michigan Supreme Court: http://www.courts.michigan.gov/supremecourt

National Pride at Work: http://www.prideatwork.org

- The Associate Press contibuted to this report.

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