DETROIT — In a move praised by LGBT advocates, the Catholic Church in Michigan is making changes to its health-care plan that could allow gays to get coverage for their partners or spouses.

In a letter sent this week to pastors and employees, the Michigan Catholic Conference said it is modifying coverage to include legally domiciled adults, meaning those who are older than 18, have lived with the employee for at least six months and are financially interdependent with the employee.

As long as a person meets those criteria, the individual will get health care coverage, regardless of sexual orientation or activity, a Michigan Catholic Conference official said.

The move is being made to comply with changes in federal law, which now allows for same-sex marriage, and also to keep in line with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, which opposes same-gender sexual acts and same-gender marriage. The Michigan Catholic Conference, based in Lansing, Mich., oversees the health care for Catholic employees in the state.

A gay couple would not qualify under the current health insurance's spousal coverage since the Catholic Church only defines a spouse as someone of the opposite gender.

"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 LDA (Legally Domiciled Adults) benefit allows for the MCC health plan to be both legally compliant and consistent with church teaching," according to the letter.

The letter doesn't mention gays or the issue of same-sex relationships but states that the benefits will apply to anyone who meets the requirement of a legally domiciled adult.

The changes effectively mean that someone who is in a sexual relationship with or married to someone of the same gender could get health benefits from the church. The definition also would apply to a friend, cousin, sibling or parent who lives with the employee.

The Michigan Catholic Conference indicated that it will not investigate the sexual activities or behaviors of those applying for the new LDA coverage to find out whether someone is in a same-sex relationship.

"The church's teaching on marriage and human sexuality is not changing," said Dave Maluchnik, director of communications for the Michigan Catholic Conference. "The only reason MCC is making this eligibility modification to its health benefit policy is to be consistent with Catholic teaching on marriage — one man and one woman." 

For the Catholic conference to keep in line with the law as well as Catholic teachings, it could remove all health-care coverage or take away spousal coverage. But both would have hurt employees, so the options weren't seen as viable, he said.

"It complies with federal law, as it is, in 2016," Maluchnik said. "This is the world in which we now live."

The option for legally domiciled adults came about because the legalization of same-sex marriage last year put the views of the federal government in conflict with the Catholic Church.

"As such, sections of the IRS Tax Code, Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act and EEOC regulations all now have an impact upon the provision of health benefits," Maluchnik said.

The health insurance plans for Catholic employees now include coverage for spouses and children of marriages between one man and one woman, in accordance with Catholic teachings. By including the new coverage, the church can keep in compliance with federal law while not explicitly advocating same-sex relations.

For example, a gay employee of the Catholic church in Michigan who is married to another man might be able to get health insurance now under the legally domiciled adult benefit. His husband would not be eligible under the spousal benefit.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Catholic advocates praised the move.

"This is a good step forward," said Executive Director Francis DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry, a group based in suburban Washington that promotes equality and justice for LGBT people in the Catholic Church and society.

However, DeBernardo said the changes stop short of what his group is hoping for, acceptance of same-sex relations and marriage that the church opposes.

"It's not ideal," DeBernardo said. "I wish the Catholic Church would recognize they could do this by explicitly supporting same-sex couples."

The changes from the Catholic Church in Michigan come as Catholic universities and hospitals also adjust their health-care policies. In some cases, gay Catholic employees have been denied benefits or removed from their positions.

DeBernardo said the Michigan Catholic Conference move echoes what happened in 1997 in the Archdiocese in San Francisco, which has a sizable LGBT community. The archdiocese agreed to add the legally domiciled adult benefit as a compromise after the city threatened to stop contracts for social services because the archdiocese was not including gay partners in employee health-care coverage.

Other dioceses across the USA now are considering similar changes, Maluchnik said.

The new benefit potentially could upset some conservatives, but the letter to the pastors said, "The decision was made following an extensive analysis conducted by the National Catholic Bioethics Center and in consultation with attorneys responsible for the legality of the MCC health plan."

Based in Philadelphia, the bioethics center's board includes Catholic bishops. The archbishop of New Orleans, the Most Rev. Gregory Aymond, is its current leader.

"The eligibility modification means the health benefit, going forward, will be based on residency, not relationships," said Ned McGrath, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

"The Detroit archdiocese does not currently inquire of its job applicants and/or its employees about their sexual inclinations," he said. "And we will continue that practice going forward."

Follow Niraj Warikoo on Twitter: @nwarikoo