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A Ban On Family Values?

This column was written by Jonathan Cohn.

Dancer Peter Sparling isn't just another resident of this city; he's an institution. A graduate of Julliard and protégé of the legendary choreographer Martha Graham, Sparling left New York two decades ago to join the University of Michigan faculty. It was a homecoming of sorts for Sparling, who had grown up in nearby Detroit, and, once he returned, Sparling figured he was back for good.

In 1993, with the university's blessing, he established the Peter Sparling Dance Company — a troupe known nationally for its innovative performances and beloved locally for its popular children's dance classes. By late summer 2004, as he was celebrating his 20th year with the university and his 11th with the dance company, Sparling told the Detroit Free Press that "I've never felt more rooted to a place than I do right now to Michigan."

But today Sparling wonders whether he can stay, thanks to a decision handed down by a state appeals court two weeks ago. According to the decision, Michigan's 2004 law against gay marriage prohibits state-run institutions from extending spousal benefits to gay couples. And that's a big problem for Sparling, whose partner of 17 years is a self-employed visual artist who depends upon Sparling for health insurance. Given the couple's financial resources and his partner's health problems, Sparling says buying individual coverage for him will be virtually impossible. "We definitely want to stay — we've invested too much in this town," Sparling tells me in an interview. "But we would have to consider leaving if it were financially difficult."

Sparling isn't the only person entertaining such thoughts these days. Even before last week's decision, same-sex couples throughout the state were saying they might have to leave if the courts invalidated spousal benefits. To be sure, the prospect of so many gays and lesbians fleeing Michigan may not trouble the law's loudest proponents — a group of religious conservatives who see homosexuality as a sin anyway. But not everybody who voted to enact the 2004 amendment may welcome this development. If even a partial exodus of Michigan's gay and lesbian couples really does ensue, it's bound to impact the state the same way Sparling's departure would impact Ann Arbor — by expelling some of the citizenry's most valued and respected members.

Is this really what Michigan's voters wanted back in 2004, when they voted to pass the ban on same-sex marriage? It wouldn't seem so. According to an EPIC-MRA survey taken that July, while most state residents were against gay marriage per se, they thought committed partners in same-sex relationships deserved some of the same privileges as married couples — like the right to make medical decisions for one another, to inherit each other's property, and to share pensions and health benefits.

It's obvious that backers of the marriage ban understood this. During their 2004 campaign to enact the law, they said repeatedly they were merely out to stop marriage, not take away existing benefits. "Nothing that's on the books is going to change," one of the amendment's advocates told The Detroit News just a week before the vote. But — as critics warned at the time — the ban's wording was ambiguous: "The union of one man and one woman in marriage," it said, "shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose."

That left it open for broad interpretation. And it didn't take long before State Attorney General Mike Cox, a conservative Republican, took advantage of the situation. In early 2005, he issued an opinion barring state employers from offering spousal benefits to same-sex couples. The American Civil Liberties Union sued, along with 21 gay and lesbian couples in Michigan, and, initially, a local judge sided with the plaintiffs. But then the appellate court reversed the lower judge's ruling. With the state Supreme Court unlikely to overrule, the state's public employers began notifying employers that spousal benefits would likely end within the year.

Nobody knows exactly how many people will be affected, but, overall, Michigan has some 15,200 same-sex couples, according to the latest census figures. Statewide, 70 large public and private employers offer spousal benefits to same-sex couples. (The ban doesn't affect private employers, but some experts worry they'll stop offering benefits too — since they will no longer have to worry about competing against so many employers who do.)

The question, then, is what happens next — and not just in Michigan. More than half the states have laws prohibiting same-sex marriage, with litigation over spousal benefits pending in two. Most of these laws were passed, via the legislature or the ballot box, shortly after a Massachusetts court ruled in early 2004 that it was unconstitutional to deny gay couples the right to marry. That decision was a classic example of the kind of overreach that got liberals into so much political trouble over issues like race and sexuality in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s — instances in which the courts attempted to establish rights that the public had not yet come to recognize on its own, thereby provoking a political backlash. (Among other things, that 2004 Massachusetts decision teed up the gay marriage issue for the Bush re-election campaign.)

But now conservatives may be the ones over-reaching — not just by disrupting communities but also by denigrating the very ideal they claim to cherish most: family values. After all, many of the couples that stand to lose spousal benefits have been together for decades, which is more than can be said for many heterosexual marriages, including certain celebrity ones. "Britney Spears goes to Las Vegas, and she has more legal rights the second all the signatures go on the certificate than couples that have been married for 20, 30, or 40 years," notes Dawn Wolfe, spokeswoman for the Triangle Foundation, a Michigan gay rights organization. "What kind of Christian ideal is served by that?"

Not only are the members of these same-sex couples committed to each other. Many are also loving — and conspicuously devoted — parents. One well-publicized case involves Dennis and Tom Patrick, of neighboring Ypsilanti, who are raising four children. Because the oldest, a 9-year-old, requires special care and medical attention, Tom stopped working full-time in order to take care of him — taking health benefits through Dennis' employer, Eastern Michigan University (EMU). As a public university, EMU has to end spousal benefits under the prevailing ruling. And while Tom could always get benefits by returning to work full-time, he'd then have to leave care of the boy to somebody else. "I don't believe voters intended to hurt families and kids," Dennis told The Detroit News a year after the law first passed. "Our families exist, and no proposal or law is going to change [that]."

Of course, many conservatives in Michigan and around the country would reject that premise. The whole point of their crusade against same-sex marriage is to de-legitimize gay couples as families. But public opinion is moving in precisely the opposite direction: Americans have grown more tolerant — not less — of homosexuality over time. According to a recent Gallup-USA Today poll, 54 percent of Americans now consider homosexuality acceptable, the highest percentage that survey ever recorded. And each succeeding generation is proving more tolerant than the last: While only 36 percent of people older than 80 think it's acceptable, 62 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds do.

That does not mean a backlash against conservatives over gay rights is imminent, naturally, but it does suggest one could happen in the future. The harder conservatives try to roll back those gains, the more they will alienate even middle-of-the-road, heterosexual Americans who have come to know members of same-sex couples as friends and neighbors, teachers and care-givers, artists and leaders.

For the residents of Ann Arbor — who, unlike their counterparts statewide, voted against the marriage ban — it's just too bad a mass backlash against the right couldn't start right away. Then maybe they wouldn't face the prospect they do now: losing people like Peter Sparling and everything they add to the community.

By Jonathan Cohn
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