When Natalie Krasnuik and Jim Elkins first rented an apartment together, they pretended they had been very good buddies for a very long time, although they were really romantically linked.
Now that they are engaged, the two feel no obligation to put up a front.
"Before, though, we could tell people were looking at us kind of oddly," said Krasnuik, 23, of Lansing.
Thanks to a landmark Michigan Supreme Court ruling Dec. 22 that held unmarried couples were protected by the state’s Civil Rights Act, landlords can’t raise an eyebrow about a couple’s marital status when considering whether to rent an apartment.
The case pitted two unmarried couples against John and Terry Hoffius, Jackson landlords who refused to rent to them because of religious beliefs against cohabitation. A divided high court decided the state’s Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on marital status.
"Nothing in the legislative history of the Civil Rights Act limits the term ‘marital status’ to protecting married couples only," Justice Marilyn Kelly wrote for the court’s 4-2 majority.
Many conservatives, however, believe the Michigan Legislature never intended to protect the rights of unmarried couples. In fact, they say, lawmakers have for many years tried to discourage such behavior with laws prohibiting "lewd and lascivious conduct" between unmarried people.
Two Supreme Court justices, Elizabeth Weaver, a Republican, and Patricia Boyle, a Democrat, agreed with that argument. So did a third, the GOP’s Clifford Taylor, who did not hear the case because he had already ruled in favor of the Hoffiuses at the Michigan Court of Appeals level. The dissenters found even if laws regarding "lewd and lascivious conduct" had not been used to successfully prosecute unmarried couples since before 1940, the Legislature was sending a message by not repealing them.
"I think [the opinion] is absolutely devoid of moral integrity. In essence, it makes immorality in Michigan a civil right," said Richard LaFlamme, an attorney who represented the Hoffiuses. "Illicit relationships are going to be protected."
But Robert Sedler, a Wayne State University law professor and an expert on civil rights issues and constitutional law, said in this age it would be preposterous to prosecute unmarried couples for living together.
Although it’s interesting that the section of the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination based on marital status was initially aimed at providing equal housing to unmarried women, Sedler said, the high court was correct in following an established principle which calls for civil rights legislation to be applied broadly.
Landlords have no right to be moral judges, he said. "Frankly, that’s none of the landlords’ business."
By giving unmarried couples protected status under the Civil Rights Act, LaFlamme said, the ruling could lead to employers being required to give unmarried partners the same health care and retirement benefits they now provide to spouses.
Precedent for such action was set recently in Alaska, where that state’s highest court provided equal housing rights for unmarried couples and then followed it up with a ruling requiring the same protection to be given by employers.
But Sedler said he thought the Michigan Supreme Court was unlikely to go that far.
"I think the court is less likely to accept that simply because of the enormous economic implications," he said. "It’s simply a much harder sell."
Although LaFlamme said he wasn’t planning to try to get the Michigan Supreme Court to rehear the case, he is going to appeal to the United States Supreme Court, arguing that the Hoffiuses’ religious beliefs are unduly burdened by the court’s recent interpretation of the Civil Rights Act.
Sedler thought it unlikely that they are unduly burdened. He said it’s an established principle that the exercise of religion doesn’t require people to be exempt from laws that apply to everyone.
"You can’t claim you’re constitutionally protected if you refuse to rent to an interracial couple because it’s against your religion," the professor said. "It’s not going to get reviewed."