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Federal judge blocks Michigan's ban on domestic partner benefits

A federal judge on Friday blocked [opinion, PDF] Michigan's ban on domestic partner benefits [Act 297 of 2011, text] for employees who work for public schools or local governments, saying the plaintiffs have demonstrated a likelihood of success on their equal protection claim by providing evidence of the state's discriminatory purpose. Passed in 2011 by a Republican-controlled Legislature, the law ended insurance [Washington Post report] for people whose domestic partners work for certain public employers. While Michigan's Constitution [text] has barred same-sex couples from marrying since 2004, some public employers had extended benefits [Reuters report] to same-sex domestic partners, a development that arguably served as the impetus for the law's passage. Judge David Lawson, presiding over the US District Court Eastern District of Michigan [official website], likened the ban to the recently-invalidated Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) [text], citing on five separate occasions the two-day-old US Supreme Court [official website] opinion [text] in United States v. Windsor [JURIST news archive]. Taking note of the rapidly-evolving cultural views on same-sex relationships, Judge Lawson quotes Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion, stating, "the Constitution's guarantee of equality must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot justify disparate treatment of that group." Michigan's nearly 9-year-old ban on same-sex marriage is also under review before a Michigan federal court, although as of right now a date of decision is still unknown.

The decision by Michigan's Eastern District Court comes on the same day as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' [official website] order to lift [JURIST report], effective immediately, the ban on same-sex marriages in California. Both lower court decisions follow the Supreme Court's landmark rulings on California's Proposition 8 [opinion] and the previously-mentioned DOMA. With approval from both California Governor Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris, marriage ceremonies began Friday night [Reuters report] across California, with hundreds of couples lining up to exchange nuptials and receive their marriage licenses. Proposition 8 plaintiffs Kristin Perry and Sandy Stier were one of the first marriages of the evening, overlooking the grand staircase at San Francisco City Hall the two were married by state Attorney General Harris. Fellow plaintiffs Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo were married the same night at Los Angeles City Hall by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

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