Local governments and the state on Michigan won't be able to provide benefits for same-sex partners of employees in future contracts now that voters have approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, the state's attorney general said Wednesday. In the first legal interpretation of Proposal 2, Atty. Gen. Mike Cox wrote in an opinion that Kalamazoo's policy of offering health and retirement
benefits to same-sex partners of city employees violates the amendment. Voters passed the measure 59%-41% in November. Cox, a Republican, said his decision does not apply to existing contracts.
In the absence of a ruling from a court, the attorney general's interpretation of the law generally is binding, Cox spokeswoman Allison Pierce said. However, the Michigan court of appeals could hear a Proposal 2-based challenge to same-sex partner benefits early next month. The city of Kalamazoo was reviewing Cox's opinion and issued no further statement.
Proposal 2 said a union between one man and one woman "shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose." Kalamazoo's policy gives domestic partnerships a "marriage-like" status, Cox said. Given the constitutional amendment's broad language, conferring benefits recognizes the validity of same-sex relationships, he ruled. "The only relationship that may be given any recognition or acknowledgment of validity is the union of one man and one woman in marriage," Cox wrote. Cox said Proposal 2 also prohibits recognition of unmarried opposite-sex
The opinion--requested by Republican representative Jack Hoogendyk Jr. of Kalamazoo--drew criticism from gay rights groups and some Democratic lawmakers. Jeffrey Montgomery, executive director of the Detroit-based Triangle Foundation, said Cox's opinion is wrong. "Most people did not think they were voting to take health care benefits away from people," Montgomery said. "Most people voted because [the amendment] was talking about the definition of marriage."
Cox said giving benefits itself does not violate Proposal 2. Governments could offer benefits to people designated by employees. But they couldn't be based on a union similar to marriage, he said. Montgomery blasted Cox's rationale. "It sounds like as long as you don't say benefits are for your partner, then it's not a problem," he said. "That is almost as insulting as Proposal 2 is itself."
Gary Glenn, president of the antigay American Family Association of Michigan, welcomed the attorney general's opinion. "I don't think there's any question the majority of Michigan taxpayers will be strongly supportive of the attorney general's opinion," he said.
In April the state appeals court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in a case challenging the Ann Arbor Public Schools' domestic-partner benefits. Patrick Gillen, an attorney with the Ann Arbor-based Thomas More Law Center, which filed the lawsuit, said Cox's opinion is further proof that same-sex partner benefits are banned under Proposal 2. The University of Michigan, Wayne State University, and city of Ann Arbor--which offer benefits to the same-sex partners of employees--have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the school district. It is unclear how Cox's opinion might affect universities that offer domestic-partner benefits. The schools have argued that the constitution gives them autonomy to make those sorts of decisions.
Cox's decision could affect state employees. In early December, Gov. Jennifer Granholm's administration decided not to offer benefits to same-sex couples--which were included in new labor contracts--until a court rules on their legality.