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April 17, 2014

ACLU sues state to recognize same-sex marriages, benefits

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

METRO DETROIT — The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the state of Michigan, requesting that the state recognize the legal marriages and associated benefits of about 300 same-sex couples who got married following the results of DeBoer v. Snyder.

In that case, which was concluded March 21, Judge Bernard Friedman, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, ruled that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage — approved by voters in 2004 — violates the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which is often interpreted as an attempt to honor the concept that “all men are created equal.”  

However, the day after Friedman’s ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit placed a temporary hold on the ruling. In the short window of time between Friedman’s ruling and the Circuit Court’s stay, around 300 same-sex couples got legally married in four Michigan counties: Ingham, Muskegon, Oakland and Washtenaw. Eight of these couples are listed as plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit.

What’s being debated is whether the state has to legally recognize these marriages and honor their benefits while the stay is still in place.

“The governor has effectively invalidated these marriages, which we believe is unconstitutional. He singled out a group and said you’re not entitled to the same rights as heterosexual marriages in Michigan,” said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the LGBT project of the ACLU of Michigan. “We have concerns about that. There is irreparable harm that has been done to these same-sex couples and their families.”

The governor claims the state is not doing anything out of line.

“What the stay does is reinstate Michigan law, and under Michigan law, it says the state of Michigan will not recognize the fact that they’re married because they’re of the same sex,” Gov. Rick Snyder said in a press conference March 26. “So what we have is a situation here where the legal marriages took place on (March 22), but because of the stay … we won’t recognize the benefits of that marriage until there’s a removal of the stay or there’s an upholding of the judge’s opinion by the Court of Appeals or a higher court.”

While the state refuses to recognize the marriages, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued a statement March 28 saying the federal government will honor them.

“For purposes of federal law … these Michigan couples will not be asked to wait for further resolution in the courts before they may seek federal benefits to which they are entitled,” Holder said in a written statement. “We (at the U.S. Department of Justice) will remain steadfast in our commitment to realizing our country’s founding ideals of equality, opportunity and justice for all.”

The ACLU lawsuit, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, points to the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, in particular the Due Process clause that prohibits government from arbitrarily denying individuals life, liberty or property outside the sanction of law.

As with DeBoer v. Snyder, the plaintiffs also point to the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment, a safeguard against discrimination.

As described in the complaint: “The Equal Protection clause is violated (when) a state’s officials refuse to treat all married couples alike; identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal; deprive some couples who were legally married in that state, but not other couples who were legally married in that state, of the recognition, benefits, rights and privileges (of marriage); and tell these couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of state recognition.”

At press time, the state had 21 days to respond to the complaint. In the meantime, the ACLU planned to file a request for a preliminary injunction, stopping the state from refusing to recognize the marriage licenses of the same-sex couples.

The plaintiffs include the following:

• Glenna DeJong and Marsha Caspar, of Ingham County: together for 27 years. They were the first same-sex couple to get married in Michigan.

• Bianca Racine and Carrie Miller, of Oakland County: together for three years. While Bianca is in the National Guard, Carrie will not be recognized as her spouse by the state’s Veterans Affairs agencies.

• Martin Contreras and Keith Orr, of Washtenaw County: together for 28 years. They’re concerned the state won’t recognize their marriage on health benefits and state income taxes.

• Samantha Wolf and Martha Rutledge, of Ingham County: together for two years. Martha has ongoing health concerns from a car accident and wishes to be covered on her wife’s health insurance.

• Frank Colasonti, Jr. and James Barclay Ryder, of Oakland County: together for 26 years.  Frank wants to adjust his pension plan to provide James with continued survivor benefits and health care, should something happen to Frank.

• Kelly Callison and Anne Callison, of Washtenaw County: together for five years. The couple has a 2-year-old son they would like to jointly adopt.

• James Anteau and Jared Haddock, of Oakland County: Together for 16 years. James would like Jared covered under his health insurance as his spouse.

The plaintiffs contend that once same-sex couples are legally married in Michigan, they gain protections that cannot be taken away retroactively. The lawsuit also says that the U.S. Constitution compels state officials to recognize these protections no matter what ultimately comes of Judge Friedman’s ruling in DeBoer v. Snyder.

“This is about real people, real families who have waited years — in some cases decades — to get married,” Kaplan said. “All of the joy, all of the celebration has been tempered by the governor’s statement. But we had 300-plus couples who got married. Their marriages are legal, and this means they’re entitled to the state benefits, protections and recognitions accorded to marriages in Michigan.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski at akozlowski@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1104.