Domestic Partner Benefits Win a Round

November 21, 2006

An Ohio judge has rejected a suit challenging the legality of Miami University's policy of offering domestic partner benefits to its employees.

The judge ruled that the man who brought the suit didn't have legal standing because he was not affected in any significant way by the way the university helps its employees. The suit charged that the benefits violate a recent Ohio measure barring gay marriage and similar legal structures. But the judge also suggested that others might have standing to bring a suit.

The Ohio litigation is part of the fallout from votes by many states to ban gay marriage. The language on these bans is not always the same -- and in some states, the language is broad enough that it is being used to challenge domestic partner benefits. The issue is a difficult one -- both for universities with benefits, gay employees, and opponents of gay marriage. Generally, during campaigns to ban gay marriage, proponents of the ban say that the issue is marriage while critics of the bans point out the possibility that many other legal matters -- such as health insurance for gay professors' partners -- could be affected. Once the bans pass, as has become the norm, groups are using them to challenge domestic partner benefits while defenders of gay employees push for narrow definitions.

In the Ohio case, the challenge to Miami University's benefits came in the form of a suit by Thomas E. Brinkman Jr. He filed the suit as a taxpayer, but has connections to the university as the parent of two students there and also as a state legislator.

Judge Charles Pater ruled that Brinkman had no right to sue because the policies don't have a sufficient impact on him. "Brinkman has not shown the kind of individual, concrete damages required to have taxpayer standing, nor can those damages be presumed," the judge ruled.

Brinkman's suit was challenged in court by Lambda Legal, a gay civil rights group, which intervened on behalf of two women who are professors at Miami and their domestic partners, who use the university's health insurance. James P. Madigan, a lawyer for Lambda Legal, said in a statement that "Mr. Brinkman's life is unaffected" by Miami's policies while "lesbian and gay employees and their families' health were at stake."

Madigan praised the judge for protecting gay employees at the university from becoming "a pawn in politically motivated lawsuits."

But more lawsuits could be on the way. In a part of the ruling that Brinkman praised, Pater said: "Arguably, Brinkman is correct, but he lacks the requisite legal interest in the dispute. The order should not be construed to suggest that no one can challenge the practice at hand."

Brinkman told The Columbus Dispatch that as a result of that language, he was "pretty happy" with the direction of the litigation, and confident that someone would be able to bring a successful lawsuit.

Ohio's ban on gay marriage also bans public institutions from creating or recognizing relationships that "approximate the design, qualities, significance or effect of marriage."

In challenging the policy, the Alliance Defense Fund, a group that backed the suit, said Miami violated those provisions because domestic partners submit a form indicating that they qualify by having been in a "long-term relationship" for six month or more and share a home.

Public universities are closely watching a case in Michigan, where a similar challenge was rejected by a lower court, but is being appealed. In the lower court's ruling, a judge found that providing health insurance should not be considered equivalent to marriage because insurance is linked to employment, not marital status and getting married does not entitle one legally to health insurance.

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