News (USA)

Judge takes up Michigan ban on domestic partner benefits

DETROIT — A ban on benefits for domestic partners in Michigan public schools and local governments might not save much money, but that’s not a reason to throw out the law, a lawyer for the state told a federal judge Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge David Lawson
U.S. District Judge David Lawson

U.S. District Judge David M. Lawson is considering whether to overturn the 2011 law as an unconstitutional attack on gays and lesbians. He stopped it with an injunction last summer after finding that opponents’ arguments were credible.

The law, signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, prevents public schools and local governments from offering benefits to unmarried partners of employees, whether homosexual or heterosexual. Supporters insist it was aimed at saving money, not punishing gays and lesbians.

Critics, however, insist that the law in practice hurts gays and lesbians almost exclusively.

Before the law took effect, a handful of school districts offered health insurance to domestic partners, along with Ingham and Washtenaw counties and the cities of Ann Arbor, East Lansing and Kalamazoo, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Ingham County said the cost added up to just $16,157 in 2012, or 0.2 percent of what was spent for health coverage for all county employees and their families.

Any savings tied to the law “may be small but it doesn’t matter if it’s large or small. It’s a savings,” Assistant Attorney General Mike Murphy told the judge. “What may be small today may be significant tomorrow.”

A law can be unfair to a group of people but still be constitutional, Murphy said.

John Knight of the ACLU, however, said there was no rational basis for Michigan to stop local governments from voluntarily offering the benefits.

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“It denied access to all same-sex domestic partners, who could not marry,” he said.

Lawson signaled last year that he’s troubled by the law. When he ordered an injunction, he compared the state’s defense of the law to “a five-week -old, unrefrigerated dead fish.”

Separately, Michigan’s ban on gay marriage has been overturned in a case before another judge. The state is asking Lawson to put his case on hold until the gay marriage dispute is settled by higher courts.

Lawson said he would respond soon. If gay marriage were to be legalized in Michigan, the lawsuit challenging the ban on same-sex benefits likely would become moot.

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