Lawsuit pending on Mich. domestic partner benefits ban

By Ed White

Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) -- People who lost domestic partner benefits under a 2011 Michigan law say they're feeling the pinch as they wait months for a judge to decide whether the ban affecting public school and local government employees is unconstitutional.

A law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder ended health insurance for people whose domestic partners work for certain public employers.

"I feel like a second-class citizen," said Gerardo Ascheri, 55, of Lansing, who lost insurance available through his partner's employer. "At my age, I'm beginning to think about retirement, trying to save as much as I can. This complicates it."

Ascheri said he now pays $460 a month for insurance that doesn't include dental or vision coverage, more than double what he paid through Ingham County, where partner Doak Bloss, 59, has worked for the health department for 20 years.

Ascheri drives 75 miles to a Detroit-area college three times a week to certify piano teachers, partly because the job helps cover his insurance bill.

"I have two degrees, one of them a doctorate. I pay taxes, and this is how I'm treated? It's a feeling of impotence," he said.

Supporters say the law saves tax dollars and follows the spirit of a statewide vote in 2004 in which 58 percent of voters defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The law applies to all domestic partners -- same sex or not -- but critics say it's aimed at gays and lesbians.

It's not known how many people are affected. Before the law, a handful of school districts offered domestic partner benefits, along with Ingham County, Washtenaw County and the cities of Ann Arbor, East Lansing and Kalamazoo, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The law exempts colleges and universities, as well as most state government workers whose benefits are set by the Michigan Civil Service Commission.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit last year, claiming the law targets certain people and violates constitutional rights of equal protection.

U.S. District Judge David Lawson heard arguments in August but hasn't made a decision on a request for an injunction. The state, meanwhile, wants the lawsuit thrown out, saying there is no right to health insurance.

Assistant Attorney General Margaret Nelson told the judge that economic harm in the form of higher insurance costs doesn't add up to "irreparable harm."

"There clearly is no discriminatory purpose with respect to the elimination of the benefits," Nelson said.

ACLU attorney Amanda Goad said heterosexual domestic partners affected by the law can get married and qualify for benefits. But gays and lesbians in Michigan, she noted, cannot.

"Make no mistake, this act was intended to harm people and particularly to harm lesbian and gay people," Goad said in court.

In a recent court filing, Kalamazoo city employee JoLinda Jach said her partner, Barbara Ramber, lost insurance Jan. 1 because of the law. She had paid $60 a month for Ramber's benefits and also paid taxes on the city's contribution.

Jach said Ramber still lacks insurance because they can't afford the high deductibles and monthly premiums.

Published: Wed, Feb 20, 2013