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Michigan denies same-sex benefits

February 03, 2007|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

Public universities, state agencies and local governments in Michigan cannot offer health insurance to the partners of gay and lesbian employees, an appeals court ruled Friday.

The court found that a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage had the effect of outlawing benefits for domestic partners. The amendment, approved by 59% of voters in 2004, states that only "the union of one man and one woman" is valid in Michigan, "as a marriage or ... for any purpose."

During the 2004 campaign, backers of the amendment repeatedly said it would not be used to take away domestic-partner benefits. "Nothing that's on the books is going to change," Kristina Hemphill, a campaign spokeswoman, told the Detroit News a week before the election.

After the amendment passed, state Atty. Gen. Mike Cox, a Republican, issued a legal opinion that public employers could no longer offer benefits to same-sex couples. The American Civil Liberties Union sued on behalf of 21 gay and lesbian couples.

Friday's ruling rejected the ACLU's arguments, holding that the amendment clearly prohibited employers from recognizing same-sex unions.

"We're very disappointed," said Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan. "But we're not done."

The ACLU plans to appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court -- which conservatives dominate -- and perhaps bring a case in federal court. In the meantime, the group will seek a stay to prevent gay and lesbian partners from losing their health insurance.

Plaintiff Dennis Patrick, a professor at Eastern Michigan University, said the ruling disillusioned him. "I felt like we had been lied to during the campaign," he said. "We were told it was only about defining traditional marriage. It turned out to be about healthcare and benefits."

But Brad Snavely, a supporter of the amendment, said there had been no intent to deceive. "No one knew for sure what the language would mean," said Snavely, executive director of the Michigan Family Forum.

Now that a court has said the language denies benefits, Snavely said, he hopes judges in other states will follow suit.

Of the 26 states that ban same-sex marriage, 17 use broad language that could be interpreted to prohibit a wide range of benefits. In Ohio, for instance, two lower courts have ruled that same-sex couples are not entitled to protections under domestic violence laws. That issue is still being litigated.

stephanie.simon@latimes.com

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