Michigan's ban on gay marriage, approved by voters in a landslide in 2004, was scratched from the state constitution by a federal judge who said the ballot box is no defense to a law that tramples the rights of same-sex couples.
Clerks who handle marriage licenses in Michigan's 83 counties said they would start granting them to gays and lesbians — three as early as today — although Attorney General Bill Schuette asked a higher court on March 21 to freeze the landmark ruling while an appeal is pursued. It was not known when a federal appeals court in Cincinnati would respond.
Schuette noted that the U.S. Supreme Court in January stepped in and suspended a similar decision that struck down Utah's gay-marriage ban.
"A stay would serve the public interest by preserving the status quo ... while preventing irreparable injury to the state and its citizens," he said.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman was historic, following a two-week trial that explored attitudes and research about homosexual marriage and households led by same-sex couples. The judge rejected the conclusions of experts hired by the state to defend the rationale behind a constitutional amendment that recognizes marriage only as between a man and a woman.
The attorney general's office emphasized the 59 percent approval by voters as well as tradition and child-rearing as reasons why the 2004 amendment should stand. Friedman, however, wasn't swayed.
He praised April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, two Detroit-area nurses who are raising three children with special needs. They filed a lawsuit in 2012 because they're barred from jointly adopting each other's children. Joint adoption is reserved for married heterosexual couples in Michigan.
"In attempting to define this case as a challenge to `the will of the people,' state defendants lost sight of what this case is truly about: people," the judge said.
"It is the court's fervent hope that these children will grow up `to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives,'" Friedman said, quoting the Supreme Court. "Today's decision is a step in that direction, and affirms the enduring principle that regardless of whoever finds favor in the eyes of the most recent majority, the guarantee of equal protection must prevail."
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia issue licenses for same-sex marriage. Since December, bans on gay marriage have been overturned in Texas, Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia, but appeals have put those cases on hold.
DeBoer and Rowse cried as they read the decision with their lawyer on a laptop at their kitchen table in Hazel Park. About an hour later, the couple got a standing ovation and cheers at Affirmations, a community center for gays and lesbians in Ferndale, north of Detroit. They said they'll get married when the case ends, a process that could take years with appeals.
"We don't want to speculate what's to come. ... We want to get married. We will be getting married - when we know that our marriage is forever binding," DeBoer said.
The 31-page decision was filed in Detroit's federal court shortly after 5 p.m., when most county offices were closed and couldn't issue licenses. Washtenaw, Oakland and Muskegon counties said they would be open Saturday. Others will follow suit Monday.
"We don't ask someone's orientation on a concealed pistol license, birth certificate, death certificate or voter registration," said Carmella Sabaugh, the clerk in Macomb County, near Detroit. "Today's court ruling means we won't ask that question for marriage licenses, either."
Dave Murray, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, said the state has an "obligation" to defend what voters chose a decade ago.
If a "court concludes the provision of the Michigan Constitution cannot be enforced, he'd respect those decisions and follow the rule of law," Murray said of Snyder.
Michigan's Roman Catholic leaders were disappointed by the outcome Friday. Seven dioceses contributed more than $1 million to a campaign committee to help get the 2004 amendment passed.
Led by Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron, the bishops said gays and lesbians should be "accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity." But the judge, they said, is wrongly redefining marriage.
"This decision ... mistakenly proposes that marriage is an emotional arrangement that can simply be redefined to accommodate the dictates of culture and the wants of adults," seven bishops said.
Reaction to the ruling …
From Marriage Equality USA's Brian Silva: "This ruling from a Reagan-appointed judge continues a string of diverse judicial appointees all coming to the same conclusion, that denying same-sex couples the equal right to marry is unconstitutional."
From Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin: "The momentum for marriage equality is undeniable as yet another federal judge affirmed today that all loving and committed same-sex couples deserve to be treated equally under the law. Today’s ruling in Michigan now joins similar rulings in Virginia, Kentucky, Texas, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah. It’s clear that the law is on the side of LGBT Americans, and we are moving with increasing momentum toward the day when all loving and committed same-sex couples receive the dignity and respect they deserve."
From National Organization for Marriage president Brian S. Brown: "This type of illegitimate ruling will continue to happen until the US Supreme Court steps in to put a stop to it. The Supreme Court ruled less than a year ago that the definition of marriage has historically been up to the states to decide, and yet activist federal judges are twisting that ruling to redefine marriage."