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Thursday, May 15, 2008

A Right to Health Insurance for Same-Sex Partners? It Depends on What You Mean by “Similar Union,” “Recognized,” “Only Agreement” and “For Any Purpose”

Michigan_flagFirst Vermont allowed same-sex couples to enter into civil unions. Then Massachusetts allowed same-sex couples to marry. (And, JUST HOURS AGO, the Supreme Court of California lifted that state's ban on same-sex marriage). In response to the strides made by gay rights advocates in Vermont and Massachusetts, many states amended their constitutions to “defend” marriage. Michigan’s constitution was amended to provide:

To secure and preserve the benefits of marriage for our society and for future generations of children, the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose.

(emphasis added).

A dispute arose when the Attorney General issued a formal opinion concluding that this so-called “marriage amendment” prohibited the city of Kalamazoo from providing health insurance to employees’ same-sex domestic partners.

Over a spirited defense, a majority of the Michigan Supreme Court recently held that this amendment to the Michigan constitution prohibits public employers from providing health insurance to employees' same-sex domestic partners. As the dissent paints it: “[t]he majority decides that the ‘marriage amendment’ prevents public employers from voluntarily entering into contractual agreements to provide health benefits to their employees' same-sex domestic partners.”

The majority's decision required many consultations with Webster’s Dictionary.

First, the court held:

[T]he amendment prohibits the recognition of a domestic partnership “as a marriage or similar union ....“ That is, it prohibits the recognition of a domestic partnership as a marriage or as a union that is similar to a marriage. * * * [J]ust because a public employer does not refer to, or otherwise characterize, a domestic partnership as a marriage or a union similar to a marriage does not mean that the employer is not recognizing a domestic partnership as a marriage or a union similar to a marriage.

The pertinent question is not whether public employers are recognizing a domestic partnership as a marriage or whether they have declared a domestic partnership to be a marriage or something similar to marriage; rather, it is whether the public employers are recognizing a domestic partnership as a union similar to a marriage. A “union” is “something formed by uniting two or more things; combination; ... a number of persons, states, etc., joined or associated together for some common purpose.” Random House Webster's College Dictionary (1991). Certainly, when two people join together for a common purpose and legal consequences arise from that relationship, i.e., a public entity accords legal significance to this relationship, a union may be said to be formed. When two people enter a domestic partnership, they join or associate together for a common purpose, and, under the domestic-partnership policies at issue here, legal consequences arise from that relationship in the form of health-insurance benefits. Therefore, a domestic partnership is most certainly a union.

The next question is whether a domestic partnership is similar to a marriage. Plaintiffs and the dissent argue that because the public employers here do not bestow upon a domestic partnership all the legal rights and responsibilities associated with marriage, the partnership is not similar to a marriage. Again, we respectfully disagree. “Similar” means “having a likeness or resemblance, [especially] in a general way; having qualities in common [.]” Random House Webster's College Dictionary (1991); [citations omitted]. A union does not have to possess all the same legal rights and responsibilities that result from a marriage in order to constitute a union “similar” to that of marriage. If the marriage amendment were construed to prohibit only the recognition of a union that possesses legal rights and responsibilities identical to those that result from a marriage, the language “or similar union” would be rendered meaningless, and an interpretation that renders language meaningless must be avoided. [citation omitted]. Further, the dissimilarities identified by plaintiffs are not dissimilarities pertaining to the nature of the marital and domestic-partnership unions themselves, but are merely dissimilarities pertaining to the legal effects that are accorded these relationships. However, given that the marriage amendment prohibits the recognition of unions similar to marriage “for any purpose,” the pertinent question is not whether these unions give rise to all the same legal effects; rather, it is whether these unions are being recognized as unions similar to marriage “for any purpose.”


Well, is the city of Kalamazoo “RECOGNIZING” a domestic partnership as a union similar to a marriage by providing health benefits to same-sex domestic partners? The court held yes:
“Recognize” is defined as “to perceive or acknowledge as existing, true, or valid[.]” Random House Webster' s College Dictionary (1991). When a public employer attaches legal consequence to a relationship, that employer is clearly “recognizing” that relationship. That is, by providing legal significance to a relationship, the public employer is acknowledging the validity of that relationship. When public employers provide domestic partners health-insurance benefits on the basis of the domestic partnership, they are without a doubt recognizing the partnership.

Sure, and this is where contract law comes in, is the city of Kalamazoo recognizing an “AGREEMENT” by providing health benefits to same-sex domestic partners? The court held yes:

An “agreement” is “the act of agreeing or of coming to a mutual arrangement.” Id. The city of Kalamazoo's, the University of Michigan's, and Michigan State University's policies require putative partners to sign a domestic-partnership agreement. The OSE's policy requires partners to “agree that they are jointly responsible” “for basic living expenses....” Obviously, if two people have decided to sign a domestic-partnership agreement or have agreed to be jointly responsible for basic living expenses, they have come to a mutual arrangement. Therefore, public employers recognize an agreement when they provide health-insurance benefits to domestic partners on the basis of a domestic partnership.

However, the marriage amendment specifically states that the “only” agreement that can be recognized as a marriage or similar union is the union of one man and one woman. “Only” means “the single one ... of the kind; lone; sole [.]” Random House Webster's College Dictionary (1991). Therefore, a single agreement can be recognized within the state of Michigan as a marriage or similar union, and that single agreement is the union of one man and one woman. A domestic partnership does not constitute such a recognizable agreement.

Further, the court discussed the meaning of the phrase “for any purpose”:

[T]he marriage amendment specifically prohibits recognizing “for any purpose” a union that is similar to marriage but is not a marriage. “Any” means “every; all[.]” Id. Therefore, if there were any residual doubt regarding whether the marriage amendment prohibits the recognition of a domestic partnership for the purpose at issue here, this language makes it clear that such a recognition is indeed prohibited “for any purpose,” which obviously includes for the purpose of providing health-insurance benefits. Whether the language “for any purpose” is essential to reach the conclusion that health-insurance benefits cannot be provided under the instant circumstances, or merely punctuates what is otherwise made clear in the amendment, the people of this state could hardly have made their intentions clearer.


National Pride at Work, Inc. v. Michigan, 2008 WL 1961465 (May 7, 2008).
[Meredith R. Miller]

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