Aug. 08--Kalamazoo resident Barbara Jean Ramber says she fears losing two things: her health care benefits and her eyesight.
A new Michigan law could cost her both, Ramber testified Tuesday in U.S. District Court.
She was among more than 60 people packed into Judge David Lawson's courtroom for arguments in a lawsuit filed on behalf of schoolteachers, city and county workers and their domestic partners who will lose their health insurance as a result of a new law prohibiting certain public employers from offering health care benefits to unmarried couples, including same-sex couples.
Ramber, who has glaucoma and arthritis and faces potential blindness if she can't access care, will lose her benefits Dec. 31 when her partner's employer -- the City of Kalamazoo -- stops offering them.
"I'm scared to death about losing my benefits. And my eyesight? The thought of losing that is terrible," Ramber testified before Lawson, who is considering the request to strike down the law. "It's been hard. My son doesn't understand why this law treats us differently than other families."
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of four couples, arguing the new state law is discriminatory because it denies same-sex couples access to benefits and violates the constitutional right to equal protection by forcing employers to cancel family benefits for gay and lesbian employees in committed relationships. The lawsuit alleges that causes financial hardship and anxiety for the couples, while heterosexual employees can marry and maintain health benefits. Michigan law does not recognize same-sex marriage.
"The entire thing should be struck down as unconstitutional," ACLU staff attorney Amanda Goad argued in court. "This law is actively harming gay people. ... If a family has to choose to forgo health care ... the medical harms may be irreparable."
State attorney Margaret Nelson defended the law on behalf of the state, arguing it has a legal right to try to save money and "an interest in protecting marriage."
"The plaintiffs assume that they are similarly situated to married employees," Nelson said, adding they "do not have a legally recognized relationship under Michigan law."
Same-sex couples are viewed under Michigan law more like friends or roommates, Nelson said.
Another plaintiff, Joe Breakey of Ann Arbor, sat in the front row with his partner and their 11-year-old daughter. The self-employed therapist will lose his health benefits, which he gets through his partner, a teacher in Ann Arbor.
The couple is considering moving because health coverage in Michigan is too expensive.
"We felt really targeted and picked on. When you feel picked on, you feel hurt, scared, and you want to fight back," said Breakey, who brought his daughter to teach her about fighting back. "We believe in the court system. We want her to see that this is the way to handle injustice."
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