Group Sues Michigan State University Over Same-sex Benefits

July 7, 2006

A conservative group this week filed suit to stop Michigan State University from offering health insurance to the partners of gay workers and said the school is violating a 2004 amendment to the state constitution.

The American Family Association of Michigan filed the lawsuit in Ingham County Circuit Court and hopes to get a ruling setting a precedent that would block domestic partner benefits at other state universities.

Deborah Labelle, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, said the suit is pointless because the state appeals court already is set to rule on the issue. She characterized attempts to strip benefits from gay partners as “mean-spirited.'”

Schools that provide benefits to gay couples include the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan, Northern Michigan, Wayne State, Saginaw Valley and Oakland.

The purpose of the suit is to ensure that courts rule on the constitutionality of domestic partner benefits at public universities, said Patrick Gillen, an attorney for the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, which is representing the American Family Association.

By providing same-sex benefits, Michigan State is “recognizing same-sex marriage in substance if not by label,” Gillen said. A related case is pending before the Michigan Court of Appeals, which heard arguments in April.

Michigan State spokesman Terry Denbow said the school would not comment on pending litigation.

In 2004, Michigan voters approved a constitutional amendment that made the union between a man and a woman the only agreement recognized as a marriage “or similar union for any purpose.”

Those six words spurred a legal fight over benefits for the partners of gay employees who work for state and local governments and other public employers. Gays say voters meant to prevent gay marriage but never intended to keep them from getting health insurance.

Twenty-one gay couples, including employees at Michigan State, sued the state in 2005 after Republican Attorney General Mike Cox issued an opinion interpreting the amendment as barring domestic partner benefits in future contracts.

Gillen said Wednesday’s lawsuit is needed because there are questions about whether the couples have the right to sue and whether the related case applies to universities, which have argued the constitution gives them freedom to provide domestic partner benefits.

“If MSU doesn’t allow an employee to put her elderly grandmother or little sister on the university’s health insurance, how do they justify singling out only employees involved in a homosexual relationship for special treatment?” said Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan. Glenn and Gillen wrote the 2004 amendment.

But Labelle said health insurance and other benefits are given to children and other dependents, not just married people.

“In one fell swoop, they manage to diminish both what marriage is and to exaggerate the impact of domestic partner benefits,” she said. “What’s really bizarre is nobody would say providing health benefits to a boyfriend and girlfriend (in a heterosexual relationship) makes it a marriage.”

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