Michigan voters last year approved a measure stating that "the union of one man or one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose."
While the vote clarified the state's stance on gay marriage (against), it did not resolve the question of benefits for the partners of gay employees, which a number of public universities in the state provide. Some opponents of gay marriage vowed to try to kill such benefits, but a ruling by a state judge on Tuesday said that the change in Michigan's Constitution did not in any way bar public universities from awarding benefits to domestic partners of employees.
The ruling, by Judge Joyce Draganchuk, came in a dispute about the awarding of such benefits by the City of Kalamazoo. But the University of Michigan and Wayne State University, as well as the American Association of University Professors, filed briefs with the court urging it to rule that the marriage amendment did not restrict public universities from offering domestic partner benefits. The brief from the two universities said that offering such benefits was "vital to the universities' ability to recruit and retain the best and the brightest faculty and staff."
Judge Draganchuk explicitly cited the higher education briefs in her decision and wrote it broadly to refer to all public entities in Michigan, not just Kalamazoo.
She cited several reasons to say that public universities' benefits were not limited by the anti-gay-marriage measure. "Health care benefits are not among the statutory rights or benefits of marriage. An individual does not receive health care benefits for his or her spouse as a matter of legal right upon getting married. If a spouse receives health care benefits, it is as a result of a contractual provision or policy directive of the employer," Judge Draganchuk wrote in her decision.
She rejected the idea that awarding such benefits amounts to marriage and noted that state sanction is required for marriage, but not for an employer who wants to provide benefits. She also noted that marriages can only be ended through a legal process, but that health benefits typically end when someone leaves a job with an employer.
Universities in Michigan have said that they will continue to offer domestic partner benefits unless they are ordered not to. Some anti-gay-marriage groups have vowed to appeal the ruling and have hinted that they may challenge university benefits policies in the future. But lawyers for those groups were not available on Thursday.