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September 3, 2014

Court hears ACLU case for 300 married same-sex couples

Lawsuit seeks to restore rights to marriages that were legally completed

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

METRO DETROIT — The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) made its case in federal district court Aug. 21 for the rights of about 300 same-sex couples who got legally married in Michigan following the results of DeBoer vs. Snyder, and who the state refused to recognize when the case was stayed pending appeal, denying them the benefits of marriage.

In the case of DeBoer vs. Snyder, which first 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. Parallel to all of this, the case of DeBoer vs. Snyder has since been heard in the Sixth Circuit, and a verdict is expected this fall. At press time, it was unknown when the ACLU would learn the verdict for their own case concerning the 300 couples, to be decided by Judge Mark A. Goldsmith, also with the Eastern District of Michigan.

“We’re asking the judge to enter a preliminary injunction to stop the state from refusing to recognize these marriages,” said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU’s LGBT project. “We’re challenging the legality and constitutionality of what the governor has done. I think what’s really important to note is that Gov. (Rick) Snyder had a choice; he said his hands were tied, but that’s not true when other governors in other states have chosen to abide with the courts (who allowed same-sex marriage).”

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. Snyder said at 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.”

At press time, the state had not responded to requests for comment on the hearing. The state filed three motions: To dismiss the ACLU case; to put the ACLU case on hold while the DeBoer case is resolved in the Sixth Circuit; and to consolidate the ACLU case with another case involving recognition of a same-sex couple’s out-of-state marriage.

While the state refused to recognize the marriages, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued a statement March 28 saying the federal government would 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 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.

They say the state cannot “undo” legal marriages after they have taken place, similar to the situation in Utah where the state failed to recognize the legal marriages of same-sex couples who married there after Utah’s ban on marriage equality was struck down as unconstitutional, but before the decision was stayed pending appeal. The Utah case will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this fall.

As with DeBoer vs. 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.”

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 vs. Snyder.

“Now we’re waiting for the judge’s decision,” Kaplan said after the court hearing. “You tell the stories of these people and see how the situation has impacted their lives, and you see this is really an issue of human dignity.”

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