By ED WHITE, Associated Press
DETROIT (AP) - A federal judge on Friday blocked Michigan's ban on domestic partner benefits for employees who work for public schools or local governments, saying state lawmakers simply wanted to punish gays and lesbians.
U.S. District Judge David Lawson said plaintiffs who have lost benefits or been forced to buy expensive private health insurance have made a "plausible claim" that the law violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The decision came nearly a year after he heard arguments in the lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
"It is hard to argue with a straight face that the primary purpose - indeed, perhaps the sole purpose - of the statute is other than to deny health benefits to the same-sex partners of public employees. But that can never be a legitimate governmental purpose," Lawson said as he ordered an injunction.
The law, passed in 2011 by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, ended insurance for people whose domestic partners work for certain public employers. It's somewhat narrow, exempting colleges and universities, as well as most state government workers whose benefits are set by the Michigan Civil Service Commission.
A handful of school districts had offered benefits before the law took effect in 2012, along with Ingham and Washtenaw counties and the cities of Ann Arbor, East Lansing and Kalamazoo, according to the ACLU.
Supporters of the law say it saves tax dollars and follows the spirit of a 2004 constitutional amendment, approved by 58 percent of voters, that defines marriage only as a union between a man and a woman.
Lawson, however, said that argument stinks. The state's claims "come close to striking (the court) with the force of a 5-week-old, unrefrigerated dead fish," he said.
In his 51-page opinion, Lawson cited this week's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down a portion of a federal law that barred certain benefits to married same-sex couples.
"This is great news. It's a very mean-spirited law," said Lansing piano teacher Gerado Ascheri, 55, who has been paying $460 a month after losing better, less expensive health coverage through his partner's employer, Ingham County.
Although the injunction doesn't end the case, Michigan ACLU legal director Michael Steinberg said the law clearly is doomed. He said any public school district or local government now can choose to restore or create benefits for same-sex couples or unmarried opposite-sex couples.
"The judge was absolutely correct in finding that the law was unconstitutional because it's motivated by bigotry," Steinberg said.
The state, of course, still could appeal. A message seeking comment was left with the attorney general's office, which defended the law in court. Ari Adler, spokesman for House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, said the law's supporters still stand behind it.
Sen. Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing, leader of Senate Democrats, praised the judge and said she's "disheartened that our governor wouldn't stand up for equality in the first place" and veto the bill.
Separately, another judge is considering whether to strike down Michigan's nearly 9-year-old ban on same-sex marriage. It's not known when U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman will make a decision.
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