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Second-class status

By |2008-05-29T09:00:00-04:00May 29th, 2008|News|

By Jim Larkin

Feeling once again like second-class citizens, Flint area social workers Linda Campbell and Lucy Mercier anxiously wait to see how the state Supreme Court decision prohibiting public employers from offering domestic partnership benefits will impact their family of four.
Meanwhile, Jay Kaplan, LGBT staff attorney for the ACLU’s Detroit office, says the time has come to begin planning for repeal of the state amendment banning same-sex marriage, upon which the court decision was made.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm waits to determine what, if anything, her office should do in response to the state Supreme Court decision.
And companies such as General Motors Corp. continue offering domestic partnership benefits because, well, they make good business sense.
“We want to attract the best and brightest employees we can,” said Noreen Pratsch, GM’s manager of diversity and consumer communications, while explaining why it offers domestic partnership benefits. “We’re interested in talent from all over the world from all segments of the population.”
Indeed, while Michigan courts attempt to limit domestic partnership benefits, such benefits continue to expand nationwide both in the business and the governmental segments, said attorney Kara Suffredini, director of public policy at the Family Equality Council in Boston. To date, 270 of the Fortune 500 companies and more than 8,600 companies nationwide offer domestic partnership benefits, she noted,
“Initially, it was government – particularly a host of cities in California – that was driving it (domestic partnership benefits),”Suffredini said. “Now, in terms of who’s growing it, it’s businesses.”

Hitting home

That offers little solace, of course, to families such as Campbell’s and Mercier’s, who teach at state universities and have two sons. Campbell teaches at Michigan State University but because her partner Mercier’s benefits are better at Saginaw Valley State University, signed up for domestic partnership benefits under her. It was something she was glad she had when she had to go through several rounds of expensive medical tests, Campbell said.
But now they don’t know where they stand. Campbell and Mercier may, like many other gay couples, be able to go through the arduous process of meeting new qualifying criteria being established by some public institutions so benefits can still be extended to same-sex couples. And Campbell could still get benefits from MSU, which she knows puts her in a better situation than many.
Still, she hates what it all says about how her relationship is recognized – even after a commitment ceremony in Michigan and a marriage in Massachusetts.
“We keep trying,” she said.
“We work, come home and play with the kids in the yard. We have to pay taxes like everyone else, we support public schools – which, by the way, we enjoy doing – but we don’t have the privileges (that straight couples do). At best, that’s second class status.”
So they look ahead to a future that includes either reduced health benefits for Campbell – their two sons are under Mercier’s benefits – or signing forms that don’t recognize the two as same-sex partners, because the state Supreme Court decision prohibits such recognition.
“I suppose you could say, ‘a marriage by any other name,’ but it’s dishonest,” Campbell said. “To deny that is to deny our reality.”
Mercier said Saginaw Valley University has informed her it has not officially terminated Campbell’s benefits but she will know when the insurance agency rejects a claim. And Campbell can’t get health benefits at MSU until the SVU benefits are terminated. So they wait until a claim is rejected – they’re hoping it’s a small one – and ruminate about their sudden state of health care confusion.
“The point that’s most aggravating to me is that conservatives want to talk about activist courts when it’s to their benefit but not when it’s not to their advantage,” Campbell said. “The whole thing is a political nightmare.”

History of domestic partnerships

Campbell clicks off some key years in her life – together with Mercier since 1992, son Robert born in 1995, son Andre adopted in 2001, married in Massachusetts four years ago – and it’s clear she’s caught smack dab in the middle of an historic time in domestic partnerships, which hang in the balance of Michigan’s court decision.
Ironically, said Suffredini, it was opposition to marriage that sprung the domestic partnership movement in the early 1980s, when people across the country began looking for alternatives to marriage. The Village Voice in New York City was the first entity to offer domestic partnership benefits in 1982 and a number of California cities followed suit in the 1980s – Berkeley and West Hollywood in 1985, Los Angeles in 1988 and San Francisco in 1989.
Ben and Jerry’s became the first company to offer domestic partnership benefits in 1989, Suffredini said, and that opened the floodgates for companies across the country, with the 1990s becoming the decade of rapid expansion as companies jockeyed to get a competitive edge. The Big Three – GM, Ford and Chrysler – all began offering domestic partnership benefits at the same time in 2000.
“Part of it is the concept of equal pay for equal work, but it’s also good for worker morale,” Suffredini said.
While GM offers the benefits to attract talent, Ford does so out of a sense of fairness, said Ford spokeswoman Marcy Evans.
“Ford is committed to diversity, tolerance and inclusion and because of that, we felt it was the right thing to do for the company,” Evans said.
Initial concerns about the cost of offering the benefits have been discounted, Suffredini said. The Williams Institute at UCLA Law School has authorized a number of reports showing government entities may actually save money by offering the benefits and for private employers, the cost is usually less than 1 percent to add them, she noted. Evans, in fact, said Ford has expanded its domestic partnership benefits through the years – from health care and dental in 2000 to adding life insurance and domestic partnership bereavement coverage in 2005.
It’s not only gay couples that benefit from domestic partnership benefits. In California, for example, domestic partnerships also apply to those over the age of 62 because being married can also present tax disadvantages for seniors. And it also provides advantages for caregivers who must live with loved ones to provide constant care.
“There are lots of situations where these schemes aren’t all about romantic relationships,” Suffredini said.
Yet, domestic partnerships remain challenged by Michigan’s decision. Suffredini said 17 other states have constitutional amendment language that is vague and may be used to try and reach beyond marriage, as happened here.
“We don’t know yet how else they will be used to deny LGBT families,” Suffredini said. “We don’t know how far-reaching they might become.”
That the courts would so rule at a time when government and business continue to add domestic benefit partnerships is ironic, because increasingly both are recognizing that to be competitive they must do so.
Toledo, Ohio, for example, began offering domestic partnership benefits last year, in part because it had to recognize that, faced with the significant economic downtown in the Midwest, it had to take advantage of every opportunity, Suffredini said.
“In Ohio, as in Michigan, it’s a real opportunity to attract talent,” Suffredini said. “Why would someone work in Toledo, Ohio, instead of Boston, Massachusetts, when you can get the benefits here?”
Without domestic partnership benefits at a time when its economy is among the worst in the country is a huge disadvantage for Michigan, Suffredini added.
“It hurts on a number of levels,” she said. “It hurts because they can’t be competitive with other states. It hurts because of the talent loss. And it hurts because it’s just bad public policy.”

The fight begins

Pratsch says that GM, although its domestic partnership is not affected by the state Supreme Court ruling, still has significant interest in the ruling.
“We’re looking at the ruling very closely,” she said.
And Liz Boyd, Gov. Granholm’s spokeswoman, said the governor still hasn’t decided what, if anything, she will do in response to the ruling. She noted that anything involving state workers will have to go through the collective bargaining agreement but would not say whether Granholm will take a lead role in short circuiting the ruling.
“It’s too soon to tell,” Boyd said. “We need to review the decision and explore what, if any options, we have.”
The option, however, is clear to Kaplan. He said the state amendment banning gay marriage must be repealed. The alternative of a federal court challenge risks creating a bad law that would impact gay and lesbian families across the country, he said.
Given that Michigan Supreme Court decision proves that state amendment backers were lying when they said in 2004 that the amendment would not impact domestic partnership benefits, Kaplan thinks there’s a good chance it would be overturned if amendment opponents were given enough time and money to fight it this time around.
In 2004, amendment opponents were outspent 2.5-to-1 and had little time to mount serious opposition, but still limited the passage to 59-41 percent – one of the smallest margins in the country, Kaplan said.
Still, he notes it won’t be easy.
“It will take time, money and education,” Kaplan said. “The mainstream media doesn’t want to dig deeply into this because this is not a sound bite type issue. You have to talk about people and how they would be affected and what this really means to them.
“But I think if given the time and resources to run a very good campaign, voters will respond. I think if voters clearly understand they were lied to (in 2004) they will support us. Voters don’t support taking away health benefits from people.”
Such a statewide vote, however, is years away – 2010 at the earliest – and in the meantime gay couples are faced with jumping through the hoops of documenting alternative health coverage that doesn’t recognize domestic partnerships and still facing cost concerns when they do.
“So far we haven’t seen anyone lose their health benefits,” Kaplan said. “But it’s important for people to recognize this is not a panacea. It is not an easy process.”

About the Author:

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