Ten months ago, more than 300 same-sex couples in Michigan used a one-day window of legal opportunity to get married. As had happened in dozens of other states, a federal judge had struck down the state’s ban on gay marriage. But a federal appeals court quickly stayed that decision pending further legal resolution, preventing further such marriages and leaving those couples in a kind of legal limbo.
On Thursday, another federal judge ordered Michigan to recognize those 300-plus marriages – good news for the couples involved and potentially for others wishing to get married.
More significantly for a controversial issue that has swept across the country – same-sex marriage is now legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia – the track of gay marriage in Michigan could help prompt the United States Supreme Court to definitively decide the issue.
Movement in that direction could happen as soon as Friday, when the high court considers whether to take up same-sex marriage cases from several states (Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee). After years of legal maneuvering and sometimes contradictory rulings at the state level, that’s something both sides are hoping for.
In the Michigan case, US District Judge Mark Goldsmith wrote in his decision that “same-sex couples who married in Michigan during the brief period when such marriages were authorized acquired a status that state officials may not ignore absent some compelling interest – a constitutional hurdle that the defense does not even attempt to surmount.”
“In these circumstances, what the state has joined together, it may not put asunder,” Judge Goldsmith wrote in a play on a well-known marriage vow.
Principal plaintiffs in the Michigan case are April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, two hospital nurses who have four adopted children between them (two each). They would both like to be legally recognized as having parental rights for all four children – an important element of the broader issue of same-sex marriage.
In the earlier district court ruling, Judge Bernard Friedman wrote: "No court record of this proceeding could ever fully convey the personal sacrifice of these two plaintiffs, who seek to ensure that the state may no longer impair the rights of their children and the thousands of others now being raised by same-sex couples.”
"We truly believe that we're going to win and that we won't have to face that decision at some time in the future," Ms. DeBoer told USA Today. "We're headed toward one goal, and that goal is that it's going to be legal in all 50 states."
To supporters of traditional marriages – one man and one woman – the Michigan case is another example of activist judges determining a profoundly moral and in some cases religious issue that is the bedrock of families and society.
They note that in cases where voters have had the opportunity to decide the issue at the state level, the outcome most often has favored traditional marriage.
"Federal judges are acting as if the US Supreme Court has ordered same-sex marriage to be imposed, but in reality the court has ruled that states have the right to define marriage,” Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, said recently. “We demand that the US Supreme Court act immediately to review the pending marriage case before them and swiftly reaffirm that states have the right to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman."
Still, the legal momentum in recent years – and public opinion as well – has been in the direction of same-sex marriage.
The American Civil Liberties Union hailed Thursday’s decision.
"These marriages are cherished and valid – same as any other – and it's only right that the courts and our country recognize as much," Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan LGBT Project, said in a statement. "All these couples have ever asked is that they be able to love and protect their families without being discriminated against. With this decision, they can finally begin to move away from uncertainty and unfairness and toward the fulfillment of their shared dreams."
In a statement in response to Thursday’s ruling, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said, "We are reviewing Judge Goldsmith's decision but as I have said repeatedly, the sooner the United States Supreme Court makes a decision on this issue, the better it will be for Michigan and America.”