Government, Human Resources, and Law

Judge overturns ban on domestic partner benefits

November 13, 2014
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DETROIT — A federal judge overturned a Michigan law yesterday that bars public schools and local governments from offering benefits to same-sex partners, calling it unconstitutional and based on "irrational prejudice."

U.S. District Judge David Lawson had stopped the law with an injunction more than a year ago. In a final step, he struck it down in a 34-page opinion, seven months after hearing arguments.

Lawson said the 2011 law, passed by Republicans and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, was a "substantial departure" from Michigan's "strong tradition" of allowing local governments to set their own policies in areas such as employee benefits, especially health insurance.

"It is a structural aberration, which leads to the conclusion that the law was motivated by animus, passed to harm same-sex couples in which one partner was employed by a local government," the judge said.

Lawson noted that a federal appeals court last week upheld Michigan' s ban on same-sex marriage, but he added that "this case is not about marriage."

The ban on benefits, he said, "amounts to a classification based on an irrational prejudice, which cannot be sustained."

The law prevented public schools and local governments from offering benefits to unmarried partners of employees, whether homosexual or heterosexual.

Supporters say it was aimed at saving money, not punishing gays and lesbians. But critics say the law in practice hurts gays and lesbians almost exclusively.

"The decision is under review. We have 30 days to decide whether to appeal," said Joy Yearout, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, which defended the law in court.

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.

Jay Kaplan of the Michigan ACLU, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of several same-sex couples, said the group was thrilled that the "mean-spirited" bill was struck down.

"We're very happy ... and we hope that maybe this can start turning the tide in Michigan," he said.

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