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LANSING – On April 11, a packed courtroom of The Michigan Court of Appeals heard arguments on whether domestic partner benefits constituted a violation of Proposal 2, the anti-gay marriage amendment passed by Michigan voters in November 2004. No immediate decision was rendered in the case, which pits Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox against a coalition including the American Civil Liberties Union, the office of Governor Jennifer Granholm and several Michigan universities.
The case originated following the passage of an amendment to the Michigan Constitution that outlaws marriage for same-sex couples. Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm determined that the last words of the amendment — “or any union for similar purposes” – required her to remove domestic partner benefits from state employee contracts. Her action led 22 couples to file suit. Members of these couples are employed either by the state or by state-run universities.
Last September, Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Joyce Draganchuk ruled that offering domestic partner benefits did not violate the new amendment. Attorney General Cox appealed the ruling.
Assistant Attorney General Eric Rustuccia argued that providing benefits to domestic partners, but not to children, siblings and other relations, violated the amendment by creating a special class.
“That’s exactly what the amendment, and the people of Michigan, are trying to prevent,” he said during oral arguments. Under Rustuccia’s argument, providing benefits to same-sex couples is tantamount to recognizing the relationship as a union.
Deborah LaBelle, attorney for the 22 couples, argued that providing health care benefits is in no way creating or recognizing a marital union, which is a specific classification with clear legal obligations and benefits, which are not available to domestic partners.
LaBelle and an attorney for Governor Jennifer Granholm argued that the ballot measure was intended to address the national debate about gay marriage, not to eliminate domestic partner benefits for gay and lesbian employees.
LaBelle also argued that under Rustuccia’s argument, the fact that the court was hearing the case would technically violate the amendment.
An attorney for the University of Michigan and Wayne State University argued that eliminating the ability of the universities to offer domestic partner benefits would destroy their competitive advantage in recruiting, hiring and retaining high quality instructors.
The court did not indicate when it would rule, but Judge Hoekstra did close the hearing by saying “We will carefully consider the case and our ruling on its way up to the Supreme Court.”