Judge allows same-sex couples to marry in Michigan

On March 21, Michigan became the 18th state to allow same-sex couples to marry. Federal Judge Bernard Friedman, appointed to the bench in 1988 by then-President Ronald Reagan, ruled that the so-called “Michigan Marriage Amendment” was unconstitutional. The ruling came two weeks after a nine-day trial, ordered by the judge to hear “experts” from both sides.

The state based its key argument on “the procreative function of marriage,” claiming that children thrive best when raised by a married heterosexual mother and father. Attorneys for Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer argued that being raised by a same-sex couple does not impede a child’s development. Moreover, heterosexual couples are not required to demonstrate an ability or intent to have children, or prove their fitness as parents, to obtain a marriage license.

Judge Friedman found studies presented by the state to be flawed and biased. Those supporting the lawsuit of Rowse and DeBoer — who are raising three adopted children that as an unmarried couple they were barred from adopting jointly — were deemed “credible.”

The children’s interest was at the core of the lawsuit. The two Detroit-area nurses originally sued for the right to become joint legal parents of all three children.  As an unmarried couple, their family could be legally torn apart if one parent died. The judge modified the case to address the law that prevented Rowse and DeBoer from marrying.

Immediately after the ruling, Affirmations — Metro Detroit’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community center — hosted a press conference with the couple and their attorneys. With only an hour’s notice, supporters packed the center, giving these heroes a standing ovation when they entered the room. “We decided we weren’t going to take this anymore,” said DeBoer.

The crowd applauded a comment that this victory was part of a continuum of struggle in Michigan, citing the historic Flint sit-down strike and the example of longtime Detroit African-American resident, Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus helped to launch the historic Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in 1954.

Ten years of struggle wins victory

The ruling came on a Friday after County Clerk’s offices were closed.  Three such offices opened their doors on Saturday to issue licenses to same-sex couples. In a fourth county, the Clerk’s office issued licenses at the chapel of a Unitarian church, where couples who so desired were then able to have their unions blessed.

Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Tea Party reactionary, appealed the ruling to the Sixth District Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. Judge Friedman denied Schuette’s request for a stay. By the time the appeals court did, in fact, grant a temporary stay, 300 couples had already obtained marriage licenses. With the ruling in limbo, Rowse and DeBoer are waiting for the appeals process to be concluded before seeking a license.

This is a tremendous victory, not only for this family but for all of the lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender and queer parents in Michigan and their children. According to the most recent census, cited in the ruling, there are over 2,000 parents raising over 10,000 children. The Michigan anti-LGBTQ amendment, passed by voters in 2004, is one of the strictest in the country and has been used to deny health benefits to state workers’ same-sex partners and their partners’ children.

In five other states where marriage bans have recently been overturned — Texas, Arizona, Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma — bigoted opponents of equality have also had rulings stayed pending appeals. If our victories are sustained in these states and Michigan, there will be 23 states and the District of Columbia where same-sex couples can get married. All of these victories came through decades of hard struggle and sacrifice by the LGBTQ movement.

The battle for full civil rights is far from over. In most states, including Michigan, a person can be legally fired, denied housing or denied public accommodation for their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. In Michigan, the movement is advancing — not only with the marriage victory but by winning anti-discrimination ordinances in dozens of cities — and shows no signs of backing down.