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STATE NEWS — Michigan State University Stops Same-Sex Benefits

June 8, 2007

Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan
June 6, 2007

MSU stops issuing same-sex domestic partnership benefits
by Colleen Maxwell

The university will no longer offer health insurance benefits to employees in same-sex domestic partnerships not covered by a health care agreement between MSU and the Coalition of Labor Organizations.

About 54 people use domestic partnership benefits at MSU, said Pam Beemer, assistant vice president for Human Resources.

The contract they operate under will expire within the next few years.

Some employees might leave the university if their partner’s health coverage permanently expires.

“I know it’s an important reason for lots of people – it’s why people consider MSU a good place to work,” said Kitty O’Neil, a research assistant in the plant and crop soil science department, who uses domestic partnership benefits.

O’Neil and her partner won’t be affected by the ruling until 2009, when her union contract with the university is renewed.

“A lot of individuals will lose health insurance and family security,” she said.

The university’s decision follows a Feb. 2 Michigan Court of Appeals ruling that stated the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage also would ban domestic partnership benefits for partners of employees at public universities and institutions.

The city of Kalamazoo will eliminate its domestic partnership benefits because of an order from the Michigan Supreme Court. The court will rule at a later date on a Michigan Court of Appeals decision to uphold state Attorney General Mike Cox’s legal opinion, which stated public employers could no longer offer same-sex domestic partnership benefits. The opinion stems from the passage of Proposal 2.

“The law is the law,” said Rusty Hill, Cox’s spokesman. “We were asked our opinion – that’s the way we ruled.”

Proposal 2 was an amendment to the state constitution that defined marriage as between one man and one woman. Michigan voters passed it in the 2004 general election.

Five MSU employees are part of the lawsuit being bounced through Michigan’s court system – each is vying to keep same-sex domestic partnership benefits statewide. The suit was filed by the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Public employers can provide same-sex domestic partnership benefits, but they have to use a different approach, such as buying insurance, said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project of ACLU Michigan.

“They never said you can’t buy coverage,” he said, adding that places like the city of Kalamazoo chose not to do that.

Kaplan said he doesn’t believe it was the voters’ intention to take away health insurance.

“In some instances, that’s the effect of this decision,” he said.

MSU has done all it can to be responsive to court opinions as they come, Beemer said.

“We worry about all of our employees and maintaining benefits,” she said.

According to the Human Resources Web site, MSU will “continue to monitor legal developments in this area and will revise its policies where appropriate once a final ruling has been provided by the Michigan Supreme Court.”

Beemer said it’s difficult to predict what MSU will do once all rulings are final, but the university is working to determine what options are available.

O’Neil said she could potentially see herself, and other employees, leaving MSU if the potential for same-sex domestic partnership benefits ends.

“Several other states actually made marriage and civil unions legal,” she said.

“It’s going to have more of a negative image against Michigan in the future.”

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