It comes down to just six words. On Nov. 2, a proposed amendment to the Michigan Constitution will go before voters. It reads:
“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.”
Surprisingly, many of those fighting adoption of the amendment aren’t objecting to most of it. Most, but not all.
“It’s probably those six extra words — ‘or similar union for any purpose,’” says Jay Kaplan, of the Detroit office of the ACLU. “I presume it will include things like civil unions, and it could prohibit state and local governmental entities from providing domestic partner benefits or recognizing civil unions, and it could prevent private employers from recognizing them too.”
Kaplan’s not alone. Many vocal opponents of Proposal 2 say the so-called Michigan Marriage Amendment would strip rights from Michigan citizens, including straight couples, and embed discrimination into the state constitution. They question the need for such an amendment when Michigan is one of 39 states that already prohibits same-sex marriage by constitution or statute.
Dana Houle, spokesman for Coalition for a Fair Michigan, a group that opposes the proposal, says, “That really is the key point. If the backers of Proposal 2 only wanted to ban same-sex marriage, which is already illegal, they could have left off the last six words. I think that shows that they have other intentions besides just banning same-sex marriage.”
The debate over the wording is further complicated by semantics. A state-sanctioned marriage confers on couples more than 1,000 federal benefits, all without any involvement from religious authorities, which are free to define marriage however they see fit. A few states, not including Michigan, offer civil unions that provide couples the state benefits of marriage, though they’re not recognized by other states. Domestic partnerships are registered agreements that allow employers and insurance companies to extend health care benefits to couples. Proposal 2 would prevent Michigan from offering the option of civil unions, and could threaten domestic partnerships, even for domestic partners who are heterosexual.
Conservative Oakland County Commissioner Tom McMillin, who sponsored a successful resolution supporting the proposed amendment, is satisfied with the language, and claims Prop 2 opponents overstate the amendment’s potential effect on employers’ ability to provide benefits. “A business can say, ‘Anybody who has benefits as of 2004 can still have them,’” McMillin says. “The basis just cannot be that it’s marriage or something similar to marriage.”
This position is echoed by Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan, who says, “Under that policy, every single person currently receiving any kind of benefit would continue to do so. But it would not be on the basis of a government employer singling out homosexual relationships for the special treatment of being recognized as equal or similar to marriage.”
Houle isn’t persuaded by these rosy scenarios. “The other side has even admitted in court that the definition of this amendment would have to be settled in court after the voters vote it, if it were to pass,” he says. “There seems to be little doubt that it would ban domestic-partner benefits in the public sector. Some private-sector employers would be safe. However, private employers who contract with the state, local governments or universities could be affected.”
Where opponents see a hidden agenda, supporters insists that the amendment is about protecting marriage, not stripping hard-won rights from Michiganders. A refrain of Prop 2 supporters is that the institution of marriage is under attack, and that, instead of being a civil rights issue, challenges to statutory prohibitions of same-sex marriage are threats to the institution of marriage.
“No caring society has ever intentionally created motherless and fatherless families,” McMillin says. “And that’s what same-sex homes are. We are passing this to defend marriage.”
Such narrow statements of purpose provide small comfort to the measure’s opponents, who point to the involvement of the Thomas More Law Center in drafting the bill. The center, an independent law firm founded with money from Domino’s pizza magnate Tom Monaghan, approaches the law from a fundamentalist religious perspective.
Patrick Gillen, an attorney with the center who helped write the amendment, has represented the center in a suit against Ann Arbor public schools for offering domestic partner benefits. Gillen, who did not return calls from Metro Times, recently represented the Citizens for the Protection of Marriage before the Michigan Board of Canvassers.
“When asked by our attorney if he could say that it was not their intent to use the vague language to challenge domestic partnerships and civil unions, he refused to answer,” says Houle.
“Already, a million people in Michigan don’t have health insurance. We don’t need to add to that figure with a sloppy amendment that will do nothing to end same-sex marriage.”
In fact, the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a respected, nonpartisan research group, has concluded that the additional clause “would not just elevate existing state law to the state constitution, but would augment the current definition of marriage with language that could arguably proscribe same-sex (or heterosexual) civil unions or domestic partnership benefits.”
The influential AFL-CIO has come out against the proposal, describing it as a cynical and divisive political ploy. AFL-CIO spokesman Donald Boggs says, “We take that stand primarily because we see Proposal 2 as potentially opening the floodgates of invalidating union contracts.”
Opponents of Prop 2 also see this as an issue that labor and management could agree on. Layton Dorey, former co-chair of the Coalition for a Fair Michigan, highlights the impact the measure could have on business. “When the caliber of people you’re looking for can work anywhere in the world,” he says, “why would they want to work in an atmosphere of intolerance?”
Houle says, “The Big Three offer domestic partnership benefits. About 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies offer these benefits. Private employers, even those that wouldn’t be directly prohibited from offering domestic-partner benefits, would still have a more difficult time administering their benefit programs.
“So this would not only be a burden to the families that would lose health insurance, it would be a burden to employers who use these benefits to attract and retain the best workers.”
In addition to labor and business, religion is actively involved. The Catholic Church has donated about $500,000 to the backers of the proposal, money that opponents fear will be used to put provocative ads before the public.
Seasoned observers believe Republicans are using the proposal as an election-year wedge issue to split the left. “From labor’s perspective, we believe the right-wingers are great at finding wedge issues,” Boggs says.
Indeed, the issue’s opponents haven’t swayed the Democratic mainstream. Jason Moon, a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, says, “There were people in the party who opposed it and supported it, and we chose not to take a stance on it.” And Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s office had not taken a stand on the measure at press time.
Of the wedge factor, Houle says, “I think that was the original intent; that’s why it’s on the ballot. But on the way to the ballot they added those last six words, and they’re trying to distract and deceive voters.”
The proposal is attracting some national attention. Ten other states have similar referenda on their Nov. 2 ballots, but — in addition to the closely watched referendum in Oregon — Michigan could be a key battleground. Public support for the proposal, considered until recently to be strong, seems to be flagging. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, released in mid-September, showed opposition to Proposal 2 at 51 percent and support at 44 percent.
Boggs says he thinks it will be defeated: “If there was great education on it, and people understood what it meant, they would turn it down. The pattern in this state is that when there’s a proposal and voters don’t clearly understand the issue, they tend to vote no.
“I hope we win for the right reasons — because people understand that this is a civil rights issue.”
Houle is pretty confident that it will fail, but adds, “We have work to do to make people aware that the morning after the election, same-sex marriage will be illegal, whether Proposal 2 passes or fails. What could change is people will lose benefits, health insurance benefits they have right now.”
All because of six ambiguous little words.Michael Jackman is a copy editor and writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].