Michigan Unmarried-Partner Benefit Ban Blocked by Judge

A Michigan law prohibiting public employers from extending employee benefits to anyone living with a government worker who isn’t a spouse or legal dependent has been temporarily suspended by a federal judge.

U.S. District Judge David M. Lawson in Detroit today rejected arguments by Governor Richard Snyder’s administration that the law was a cost-saving measure and didn’t target same-sex couples. Lawson said five such couples who sued last year would likely prevail on claims the measure violated their constitutional right to equal protection under the law.

“The plaintiffs have shown that the defendant’s justifications for the discrimination wrought by Public Act 297 are so insubstantial that animus against same-sex couples remains as the only genuine justification,” Lawson said.

Lawson cited in his ruling the June 26 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that barred the federal government from providing job benefits to non-employee spouses in same-sex marriages.

Gay couples are prohibited from marrying in Michigan by a 2004 amendment to its constitution that defined marriage as between one man and one woman. The legislation subject to today’s ruling doesn’t directly refer to same-sex couples, according to the judge’s 51-page decision.

Temporary Ban

Lawson’s ruling temporarily bars the state from preventing local governments from extending public employee benefits to domestic partners.

Joy Yearout, a spokeswoman for Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, didn’t immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment on today’s ruling.

“We’re breathing a sigh of relief right now,” Peter Ways, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement issued by the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit.

“This law was clearly meant to target families like ours and to make us feel as though we didn’t count,” said Ways, an Ann Arbor teacher whose partner would lose his benefits under the law.

The case is Bassett v. Snyder, 12-cv-10038, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan (Detroit).

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