MI Supreme Court Upholds Partner Benefit Rights for Unmarried State Workers

State employees in Michigan can continue to receive health benefits for their significant others, even if they’re not married, and even if they’re gay. That’s because the Michigan Supreme Court on Thursday declined to hear an appeal from the attorney general’s office, which has been challenging a local body’s decision to offer health-care benefits to unmarried state employees, saying it violates the state’s anti-gay-marriage statute. According to Attorney General Bill Schuette, the policy treats married and unmarried couples differently.

But in January, a split appeals court panel ruled that the Michigan Civil Service Commission’s health-care policy was “unambiguously completely gender neutral” and therefore does not violate the constitutional ban on same-sex marriages or other civil unions.

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear Schuette’s appeal, the lower-court ruling stands.

The attorney general’s office did not respond to inquiries from The American Independent regarding this ruling; however, Joy Yearout, spokesperson for the department, told the Detroit Free Press, “We are disappointed with the ruling because Gov. [Rick] Snyder is correct that expanding state benefits costs the taxpayers millions when they can least afford it.”

Jay Kaplan, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, praised the Supreme Court’s decision, saying the lawsuit itself was “flawed” and “deserved to be dismissed.”

While state workers will continue to receive partner benefits, others employed by public agencies are not so lucky. That’s because last winter, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law banning local government agencies from offering partner benefits to employees.

But certain agencies were exempt from this law, such as universities and the Michigan Civil Service Commission, because they have constitutionally protected autonomy.

The ACLU of Michigan is currently challenging this 2011 law in federal court.

“The ACLU is challenging the constitutionality of this law in federal court as violating the equal protection rights of LGBT employees and their same-sex partners,” Kaplan said in an email. “Although the state court decision has no legal binding precedent on federal courts, we believe that local governments, including public school districts also have the same autonomy to set the terms and compensation for its employees and that this should not be interfered with by the legislature.”

Emily Dievendorf, managing director of Equality Michigan, the statewide LGBT advocacy group, said that Supreme Court’s ruling “is an important step in our struggle for full relationship recognition,” but she said the state has not gone far enough to protect Michigan’s LGBT community.

“[It] is not inclusive enough to resolve the matter of employee benefits for same-sex partners in committed relationships,” Dievendorf said in an email. “There is still a vital need to legally ensure that all committed and loving families have equal access to healthcare insurance and other critical employee benefits.”

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