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A clash over gay couples' benefits

Kalamazoo rewrites its policy after it was ruled illegal because of Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage.

July 08, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

KALAMAZOO, MICH. — When Jerome Post and his partner, Paul Renwick, decided to leave California and move here six years ago, the couple wrestled with a common family concern: One of them needed a job that offered good health insurance.

The pair was drawn to the area by family and the desire for a slower pace of life. Plus, Post said, the city since 2000 has offered health coverage to same-sex partners of municipal employees.

"It's what convinced me to apply to work for the city," said Post, 47, assistant human resources director for Kalamazoo. His partner, Renwick, who is semi-retired, has chronic health problems.

"It's also what convinced me to take this job over offers from other companies," Post said.

But earlier this year, city staff learned that such benefits violate state law: In February, a Michigan appellate court ruled that public employers may not offer such coverage because of the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

City officials, told by the state attorney general's office that their benefits program was illegal, scrambled to find a solution.

"The public has said, time and again, that they support benefits for same-sex couples," Vice Mayor Bobby J. Hopewell said. "We are a good employer, a fair employer, and offering these kinds of benefits is only fair."

Countered Matt Frendewey, spokesman for Michigan Atty. Gen. Mike Cox: "What we challenge is the way their domestic-partner benefits are designed.... In Michigan, marriage is recognized as a union between a man and a woman."

By creating employee benefits aimed at same-sex couples in committed relationships, Frendewey said, "the city is recognizing them as a marriage. And that violates the law."

The clash between local policy and state law puts a growing number of public employers at the uncomfortable center of the ongoing debate over same-sex marriage. Cities and public schools say the benefits are necessary to make them attractive when competing for top-notch employees.

The current fight in Michigan dates to 2004 with the passage of Proposal 2, which banned same-sex marriage.

Advocates of the measure said that it was only focused on clarifying the definition of marriage, discounting critics' fears that it would be the first step in an erosion of gay rights.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm, long a supporter of domestic-partner benefits, was on record as supporting access to health insurance for families of same-sex couples.

But in fact, political pressure on legislators and legal challenges to the benefits public employers offer to same-sex couples soon followed, based on the idea that it was a de facto recognition of a civil union, which Michigan does not allow.

In March 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a lawsuit against the state, the attorney general and Granholm that asked a state court to clarify Proposal 2 and rule that it does not prohibit public employers from offering domestic-partner benefits. The complaint was filed on behalf of 21 same-sex couples who were getting their health insurance from their public employers, or would have received them as part of a state contract.

The state Supreme Court agreed to hear the case this year, but it also allowed the appellate ruling to take effect immediately.

The case has sparked a flurry of legal action elsewhere, including heated debates in Kentucky, Nebraska and Ohio.

Last month, Kentucky Atty. Gen. Gregory D. Stumbo issued an opinion citing that the Universities of Louisville and Kentucky were violating state law and that the colleges must stop offering domestic-partner benefits -- regardless of whether the couple is gay or straight.

Critics and advocates of such benefit plans are tracking a legal fight in Nebraska, where a U.S. appellate court last year upheld a state amendment barring government employers from providing benefits to workers' same-sex domestic partners.

And in Ohio, state Rep. Tom Brinkman Jr. filed a suit against Miami University of Ohio in 2005, charging that its policy of offering benefits to employees' same-sex domestic partners violates the state Constitution's ban on civil unions.

"The issue is not that people don't need health insurance. The issue is that this school specifically offered them to same-sex couples," Brinkman said. "It's unfair, because it doesn't apply to heterosexual couples too."

Brinkman's case is working its way through the courts.

Kalamazoo, though, thinks it has found a solution. Late last month, city commissioners voted to skirt the constitutional limitation -- by altering the wording of an 18-month pilot health insurance program.

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