Families, activists vow to fight court DP benefits decision

By |2018-01-16T09:12:39-05:00October 31st, 2017|News|

By Sharon Gittleman

LANSING
Thousands of Michigan kids and their moms and dads will soon find themselves without health care, because of a Michigan Court of Appeals decision.
On Friday, the court revealed it accepted Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox’s argument that a 2004, state Constitutional Amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman barred public employers from giving domestic partnership benefits to LGBT and other unwed couples.
Dennis and Tom Patrick were among several life partners and organizations that had successfully persuaded Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Joyce Draganchuk to issue a ruling in 2005, that domestic partnership benefits could be provided to unmarried pairs. It was that decision that the Court of Appeals overturned last week.
The Patricks are raising four boys ages 5-11, including several with special needs. They adopted the youths after serving as their foster parents.
The couple has been together for nearly 10 years.
Dennis Patrick is a communications professor at Eastern Michigan University, while his companion works as a part-time high school teacher in Plymouth.
They became involved in the case to fight for their children, said Dennis Patrick. Up til now, his family received health coverage throug the university.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘Dennis and Tom, you can’t get married,'” said Patrick. “When they take away benefits, that hurts my family. That’s where I draw the line.”
The appellate court’s decision left him reeling.
“I was disappointed. I was frustrated. I was surprised,” he said.
Their ruling called for insurance to be cut off immediately, something the attorney general hadn’t demanded, said Patrick.
“At best that shows a lack of understanding about the impact losing benefits overnight could have on our family,” he said. “At worst that was cruel.”
If the decision isn’t overturned, it could have serious long-term consequences, he said. Not only does it punish kids and families, it could make it harder to attract skilled employees to the state right when they’re needed the most.
Patrick said he doesn’t know if he’d move away because of the court’s decision.
“I love my job and I love living in Michigan, but I have a family and they are my primary responsibility,” he said. “I hope it won’t come to that.”
In its opinon, the court of appeals held that recognizing a couple for the purposes of giving them domestic partnership benefits would have the effect of treating them as if they were married, violating the intent behind the one man one woman Constitutional Amendment.
It also rejected claims that gays’ and lesbians’ right to equal protection under the law would be violated by their decision, since straight unmarried couples would have also been eligible for benefits as domestic partners.
“I think this decision points out how dangerous these Constitutional Amendments are when you have ambiguous language and how the use of them to disenfranchise people is not democratic,” said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Project.
Kaplan described the court’s opinion as “disturbing.”
“The legal analysis is very poor,” he said. “You can’t equate providing health insurance with marriage.”
The judges ignored legal decisions on similar questions made in courts in other states – another bad move, he said.
It also demanded benefits end right away.
“It’s mean spirited,” he said. “No one requested that this opinion takes immediate effect.”
On Monday, the ACLU requested a stay to hold off the decision from being implemented while it files an appeal before the Michigan Supreme Court, said Kaplan.
If the Supreme Court rejects their argument, they will consider a federal court challenge, he said.
It’s important that the LGBT community not lose hope, Kaplan said.
“People must understand any civil rights movement is not just about a court decision. It involves people, organizing and political action,” he said.
Kaplan said opponents of the ruling can take constructive steps forward.
“They can write a letter to the judges expressing dissatisfaction, they can work towards repealing this Constitutional Amendment, they can attend a rally at the capital,” he said.
The decision is a setback, he admitted.
“I think it’s a sad thing,” he said. “It’s an ongoing struggle. We can’t let them break our spirit. There is more work we can do. You can’t give up.”
Several gay friendly organizations issued statements expressing their disappointment with the court’s move, their fears that it will hobble public employers’ efforts to recruit top-notch employees and reduce their abilities to create a diverse work environment.
Derek Smiertka, executive director of Michigan Equality said he was disappointed but not surprised about the decision.
“Equating insurance benefits to marriage leaves a lot of children and spouses literally out in the cold,” he said. “It’s telling that the Michigan Court of Appeals mentions nothing of Michigan families affected by this ruling.”
Michigan Equality will join with other LGBT organizations and the ACLU to appeal this case to the state Supreme Court, he said.
Triangle Foundation Executive Director Jeffrey Montgomery said the court’s determination was wrong.
“It’s a very very seriously flawed decision, one that will only lead to damaging families,” he said.
His organization and others are in the process of determining their next steps, he said.
Dennis Patrick said the court’s ruling sent Michigan’s progress into reverse.
“It’s just the wrong thing to do. Other states are moving in the opposite direction,” he said. “I can’t understand why they are singling our families out like this.”

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BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.