Fighting for equal rights

By Nyssa Rabinowitz

ACLU plans to challenge the constitutionality of a new law that prohibits benefits for domestic partners of public employees

Tuesday, Dec. 27 — A new law prohibiting public employers from offering benefits to domestic partners may not be on the books for long. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan vowed to challenge the constitutionality of the law in court.

The ACLU announced its plans in a press release on Dec. 22; just hours after Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bill into law.

“The decision to take healthcare benefits away from families just in time for the holidays is mean-spirited and cruel,” Kary Moss, the executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, said in the release. “Governor Snyder had an opportunity to show real leadership and put an end to the political games; instead he approved an extreme policy that sets our state back, jeopardizes our economy and puts our families at risk. The bill serves no other purpose than to single out a small minority of people and deprive them of critical protections as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. We are prepared to challenge this law on behalf of Michigan families in the coming weeks.”

The law prohibits many government employers from providing healthcare benefits to domestic partners of public employees, both gay and straight, according to an article by the Detroit Free Press. Snyder said the law would not apply to public universities, which have autonomy to determine employee compensation under the state constitution, or state employees.

The ACLU’s position should not come as a surprise to state government. Organization attorneys revealed in October that the bill would be challenged if the governor signed it.

“House Bills 4770 and 4771 are wrong,” said Jay Kaplan, LGBT legal project staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan in an Oct. 19 ACLU press release. “They are unfair. They are unconstitutional and they will be challenged in court should they become law.”

Sponsors of the legislation argued that providing the benefits would be a financial strain for the state, the Oct. 19 release states. Benefit costs for domestic partners were originally estimated at over $8 million, but a study conducted by the Civil Service Commission found that only 100 employees opted for the service by the program’s September deadline, making the cost about $600,000 instead.

In addition, gay employees who enroll in the service must pay taxes on the premiums, resulting in additional revenue to the state, Kaplan said during City Pulse’s Dec. 12 radio show where he discussed the implications of the bill if signed.

“Because the IRS does not recognize same-sex relationships, these employees pay taxes on the premiums that paid for these insurance policies,” Kaplan said. “These public employees, in addition to paying their own income taxes for their own salary, are paying income taxes to the state based on the insurance that is covering their partners.”

The law applies to employers of municipal governments, such as cities, and public school districts, Kaplan said. It prohibits public employers from offering benefits to anyone who is not a married spouse, an IRS dependant or a legal family member. Since same-sex partners cannot legally marry or be listed as legal family members in Michigan and the IRS does not consider a same-sex partner as a dependent, there is no way these employees will be eligible for services under the law.

“When we talk about fairness in employment, these public employees are people who have dedicated their lives to public service, the do the same work as their heterosexual colleagues, and yet they’re not receiving the same compensation,” Kaplan said on the show. “We are making a law that says the mere fact that health insurance may be provided to a partner of a public employee is illegal. I don’t know of any state in the country that has such a law.”