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Suit challenges DP benefits at Ann Arbor, Mich., schools

Suit challenges DP benefits at Ann Arbor, Mich., schools

The first post-Proposal 2 legal challenge to domestic-partner benefits in Michigan could be considered sooner than expected. A religious law center and 17 taxpayers are asking the Michigan court of appeals to stop the Ann Arbor Public Schools from providing domestic-partner benefits. In court papers they cite the November constitutional amendment known as Proposal 2, which says the union between a man and a woman "shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose." The lawsuit was filed in 2003, before Proposal 2 passed, but the Thomas More Law Center wants the constitutional amendment considered in its appeal. Patrick Gillen, an attorney with the Ann Arbor-based Christian law group, said Proposal 2 prevents public employers from giving benefits to the same-sex partners of employees because such a policy recognizes a relationship similar to marriage. "It is akin to marriage," Gillen told the Associated Press on Monday. "The Ann Arbor Public Schools can't recognize same-sex marriages by calling them domestic partnerships." The case is being watched because it could be the first challenge to domestic-partner benefits using Proposal 2, which voters approved 59%-41%. The University of Michigan, Wayne State University, and city of Ann Arbor--which offer domestic-partner benefits--have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the school district. Observers caution that the court could sidestep the main legal issue and instead agree with the Washtenaw County circuit court, which found the plaintiffs had no standing or the right to sue. If the court takes up the merits of the taxpayers' claim, however, it would be the first to weigh in on Proposal 2's implications for gay couples. A higher court decision could come earlier than usual because any other challenge would first go to a trial court, Gillen said. Calls to the school district were not returned Monday. Jay Kaplan, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, said domestic-partner benefits should be protected because domestic partnerships are not equivalent to marriage--partly because same-sex couples do not get 1,100 rights and protections that married people receive. Those include the right to inherit property without a will, make medical decisions for a partner, and adopt children together. Kaplan said public employers like the city of Kalamazoo, Michigan State University, and others have "held steadfast" and continued to provide domestic-partner benefits after the election. He criticized conservative groups, which espouse "family values," for wanting "to see health insurance taken away from families and children." The lawsuit also drew criticism from the Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union. MEA spokeswoman Margaret Trimer-Hartley said school employees' bargaining rights must be protected. "This benefit was bargained in good faith with both sides agreeing to the provisions," she said, noting that up to 15 school districts in Michigan offer domestic-partner benefits. The case also could affect state employees. In early December, Governor Granholm's administration decided to not offer benefits to same-sex couples--which had been included in new labor contracts--until a court rules on their legality. (AP)

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