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The Catholic Church is allowing gay couples among its Michigan employees to sign up for health benefits for their partners, but stressed the move does not mean the church is changing its opposition to same-sex marriage.

The move was celebrated by equal rights activist Stephanie White, who said, “It’s always good when another discrimination barrier gets broken down.”

The Michigan Catholic Conference, which represents more than 8,000 employees at seven dioceses across the state, said open enrollment would begin Wednesday for workers who want to add a legally domiciled adult to their health plans for medical and dental benefits.

Those who qualify must be18 and older who share living expenses and are financially interdependent with the MCC employee. Legally domiciled adults are not only same sex partners. They could also be siblings, relatives or adult children.

Church officials pointed out the move does not mean the Catholic Church is sanctioning same-sex marriages, rather they are following federal law.

“(The plan) is not intended to focus on the issue of sexuality,” Michigan Catholic Conference spokesman David Maluchnik said Monday. “The plan is residency based rather than a relationship (based).”

White, the executive director of Equality Michigan, said whether or not the Michigan Catholic Conference concedes the move is a good one, the new health care policy is worth celebrating.

“It’s really good news,” she said. “It shows how important federal action is in saying discrimination is wrong and that people should be treated fairly. It’s a win-win.”

In an announcement sent to employees March 2, the MCC said “due to recent changes in federal law regarding the provision of health benefits, Michigan Catholic Conference has adopted a modification to MCC benefits to ensure compliance with applicable laws and regulations. The inclusion of the (legally domiciled adult) benefit allows for the MCC health plan to be both legally compliant and consistent with Church teaching,”

Maluchnik said the church wanted to be compliant with new federal rules surrounding health care plans. The benefit is being offered to 8,400 employees at Catholic churches and dioceses across the state. Maluchnik said he believes only a small number of employees will sign on to the program.

“We feel very strongly that this is both legally sound and consistent with the social teachings of the Catholic Church,” he said Monday. He added that once there was a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2013 involving a same-sex marriage lawsuit from New York “it was pretty clear that the federal government would redefine marriage and the definition of a spouse.”

Ned McGrath, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Detroit, said “our teaching on (gay marriage) has not changed.”

“It’s pretty clear the side the (Catholic) bishops come down on marriage and they haven’t changed,” McGrath said. He added the church does not ask employees or worshipers what their sexual orientation is.

The Michigan Catholic Conference filed briefs in 2014 and last year supporting efforts to keep Michigan’s voter-backed 2004 gay marriage ban in place.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage after a June ruling involving lawsuits against states, including Michigan, that had voter-approved gay marriage bans. The lawsuit against Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban was filed by Hazel Park residents April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse. The couple, both nurses, married last summer.

Attorney Dana Nessel, who represented DeBoer and Rowse, said Monday the MCC is just following the law “as dictated to them by the highest court in the land.”

“The MCC was one of the biggest contributors to Prop 2 in 2004 which created the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in Michigan,” she said. “The MCC also vigorously supported (Gov. Rick) Snyder and (Attorney General Bill) Schuette’s failed effort to uphold the ban. Only time will tell what the MCC’s true priorities are.”

bwilliams@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2027

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