Today’s decision from U.S. District Judge David S. Lawson comes two days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that married same-sex couples were entitled to federal benefits.
In the Michigan case, Lawson ruled in favor of five same-sex couples who sued the state over a 2011 law that prohibits various public employers, including cities and counties, from offering health benefits to same-sex couples. The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the law on behalf of the plaintiffs, who either lost their health insurance or stood to lose it as a result of the law.
“We're breathing a sigh of relief right now,” Peter Ways, an Ann Arbor teacher whose partner would have lost his benefits, said in a statement. “This law was clearly meant to target families like ours and to make us feel as though we didn't count.”
State officials in Michigan have defended the law, arguing it has a legal right to try to save money and “an interest in protecting marriage.” At a hearing before Lawson last year, state attorney Margaret Nelson argued that Michigan law does not recognize same-sex marriage.
“The plaintiffs assume that they are similarly situated to married employees,” Nelson said at the hearing, adding they “do not have a legally recognized relationship under Michigan law.”
Same-sex couples are viewed under Michigan law more like single people, friends or roommates, who also will lose their benefits as a result of the law change, according to Nelson.
According to the ACLU, Lawson’s ruling relies in part on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Wednesday decision, which struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional.
In his 51-page ruling, Lawson cited statements made by two state Republican legislators who supported the law, concluding their comments bolstered the plaintiffs’ arguments that the law was meant to unfairly hurt same-sex couples.
“The plaintiffs fortify their position with statements from the sponsors of the legislation suggesting that Public Act 297 targets same-sex partners and was motivated by animus,” Lawson wrote.
“This law served no purpose to the state of Michigan other than to needlessly discriminate against hard-working families,” said Kary L. Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan. “It's hard to encourage talented people and their families to work for public employers in Michigan when they're denied the ability to take care of each other.”
Lawson’s ruling was a partial victory for the plaintiffs. It dismissed their process claims for lack of evidence, but allowed their equal protection claim to proceed, concluding that the plaintiffs have a good chance at trial of proving the law violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.
A final ruling on the law’s constitutionality has not yet been made. And public employers are still not required to offer same-sex couples benefits under the ruling.