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Domestic-partner benefits ban challenged by Michigan ACLU

Domestic-partner benefits ban challenged by Michigan ACLU

A lawsuit challenging a recent opinion by Michigan's attorney general that bars public employers from offering domestic-partner benefits to same-sex couples in future contracts was filed Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. The lawsuit, filed in Ingham County circuit court, asks the court to rule that voter-approved Proposal 2, which amended the Michigan constitution to ban same-sex marriage in the state, does not bar government employers from providing health insurance and other benefits to employees' same-sex partners and their children. Those bringing the suit include a Washington, D.C.-based AFL-CIO group called National Pride at Work; Kalamazoo city employees; workers at state universities; and employees at various state agencies and departments. Proposal 2, which Michigan voters approved 59%-41% in November, rules that a union between one man and one woman "shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose." The ACLU says in the lawsuit that U.S. courts have held that providing health insurance to same-sex domestic partners does not constitute recognition of a marriage or a similar union and is necessary for employers to attract qualified workers. The ACLU also argues in the suit that the intent of voters was not to deny the families of gays and lesbians health insurance or other benefits. The suit says the ballot committee that sponsored Proposal 2 "consistently and repeatedly" assured voters that the initiative was only about "protecting marriage." Last week Michigan attorney general Mike Cox issued his first legal interpretation of Proposal 2, saying that Kalamazoo's policy of offering health and retirement benefits to same-sex partners of city employees violates the new amendment. Cox, a Republican, said his opinion does not apply to existing contracts. 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. Cox said Proposal 2 also prohibits legal recognition of unmarried opposite-sex couples. 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 domestic-partner benefits early next month. Cox said giving benefits itself does not violate Proposal 2. Governments could offer benefits to people designated by employees, as long as the designation isn't based on a union similar to marriage, he said. 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 the administration of Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm decided not to offer domestic-partner benefits to same-sex couples--which had been included in new labor contracts--until a court rules on their legality in light of the passage of Proposal 2. (AP)

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