Michigan lesbians fight for marriage, adoption rights

“Love makes a family.”

This is a simple and obvious statement. Yet in Michigan, where 56 percent of those polled now favor legalizing same-sex marriage (mlive.com, Nov. 19), committed and loving parents are by law “legal strangers” to each other and to the children they are raising.

In a historic lawsuit, April Deboer, Jayne Rowse and their three adopted children are on the side of love. Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette are opposing them.

In Michigan, only married couples, married individuals and single individuals may adopt children. Same-sex couples are denied legal recognition under one of the most restrictive anti-marriage laws in the country — passed by the voters in 2004 — that has even been used to deny union-negotiated health benefits to state workers’ same-sex partners. Michiganians in same-sex relationships cannot jointly adopt children or adopt the children of their partners.

What this means for Deboer and Rowse, two nurses living in metropolitan Detroit, is that, legally, Deboer is the adoptive parent of Jacob and Nolan, and Rowse is the adoptive parent of Ryanne. Before the adoption, the two women were both allowed to serve as foster parents to the three children, who were abandoned at birth. Should one of the two women die, the surviving parent would have no legal right to custody of the children adopted by the deceased.

Last year, the couple of 13 years sued for the right to second-parent adoption so they could adopt all three children jointly. They were told by U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman that, because the ban on same-sex marriage prohibited them from adopting the three children as a married couple, they would have to sue for the right to marry. Attorneys for Deboer and Rowse were given 10 days to revise the case and refile. These two courageous lesbians made the brave and public decision to sue for the right to marry in Michigan.

Their action is a challenge to the right-wing state Legislature and Gov. Snyder. Early last year, the Legislature voted to prohibit municipalities and school boards from providing domestic partner benefits; the governor signed the bill into law. Snyder is hated in the state for having signed a union-busting “right-to-work” bill in December.

Another bill in the hopper would ban local ordinances designed to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity/gender expression. This month, the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak became the 22nd city in Michigan to pass such a non-discrimination ordinance. Immediately, right-wing forces began collecting signatures on a referendum petition to overturn the ordinance at the polls.

On March 7, Judge Friedman heard arguments from the couple’s attorneys as well as from Schuette. Expecting a large crowd of spectators, the court made the unusual decision to hold the hearing at the Wayne State University Law School.

Judge Friedman had the opportunity to make a groundbreaking decision and rule on the side of love. No one would have been shocked, however, if the judge had decided to uphold the state’s cruel marriage ban.

Avoiding either choice, Friedman made a spineless decision not to rule, choosing to wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, by which California voters banned same-sex marriage in 2008. To rule one way or the other “would not be fair to either side,” the judge claimed. (Between the Lines, March 7)

What does it mean to “be fair” to both sides when only one side represents fairness and the other side seeks to uphold discrimination?

Nevertheless, it is testament to the strength of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer movements that the couple could even get a neutral ruling in Michigan. Before the Supreme Court struck down all state “anti-sodomy” laws, Michigan had one of the worst, with a possible five-year sentence for the first offense and life in prison for the second.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide the California case by June. Soon thereafter, LGBTQ families throughout Michigan will know if they have won legal recognition. “We’re confident,” said Deboer, “that our children will be ours.”

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