U.S. Supreme Court to rule on marriage equality

Hazel Park couple’s crusade could lead to nationwide change

By: Andy Kozlowski | C&G Newspapers | Published January 20, 2015

 During a conference Jan. 16 at the Affirmations LGBT Community Center in Ferndale, Dana Nessel, one of the attorneys representing April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse in their challenge of Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban, announces the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear their case.

During a conference Jan. 16 at the Affirmations LGBT Community Center in Ferndale, Dana Nessel, one of the attorneys representing April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse in their challenge of Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban, announces the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear their case.

Photo by Andy Kozlowski

METRO DETROIT — The U.S. Supreme Court has announced it will review same-sex marriage cases out of Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee — four states that have denied marriage licenses to gay couples.

The high court’s decision, expected by the end of June 2015, could lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Currently, same-sex marriage is legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia.    

The Supreme Court made its announcement Jan. 16. During a press conference later that evening at the Affirmations LGBT Community Center in Ferndale, the plaintiffs in the Michigan case and their legal team celebrated the news.

“We could not possibly be more excited,” said Dana Nessel, one of the attorneys representing April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, the lesbian couple from Hazel Park who challenged Michigan’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

“We filed this in January 2012, three years ago,” Nessel said. “This case has been a long time coming. It’s been a long road … and we very much hope that when our case is heard by the Supreme Court, marriage equality will be made the law of the land, not just here in Michigan, but in all 50 states.”

Added Rowse: “This is probably the proudest day of my great lesbian life.” 

The plaintiffs petitioned the Supreme Court once the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage, approved by voters in 2004. The Sixth Circuit delivered their opinion Nov. 6, three months after hearing arguments at their courthouse in Cincinnati.

Two of the three judges — Jeffrey Sutton and Deborah L. Cook, both appointed by former President George W. Bush — sided with the state, while Judge Daughtrey, an appointee by former President Bill Clinton, sided with the plaintiffs. In essence, Sutton and Cook said the people should decide whether same-sex couples have equal rights, while Daughtrey said the point of the judiciary is to protect the rights of the minority against the whim of the majority.

The decision made the Sixth Circuit the first federal appellate court in over a year to rule against marriage equality, going against rulings in the Fourth, Seventh, Ninth and 10th circuits, among others. Their decision also overturned lower court decisions out of Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee, the other three states who are now accompanying Michigan to the Supreme Court.


The Sixth Circuit

The Sixth Circuit hearings came about when the state appealed a federal district court ruling that struck down Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban as unconstitutional.

Last March, Judge Bernard Friedman, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, ruled that the ban violates the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In his 31-page opinion issued March 21, Friedman explained his rationale:

“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,” Friedman said. “No court record of this proceeding could ever fully convey the personal sacrifices 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.

“Today’s decision is a step in that direction,” he continued, “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.”

Federal judiciary in six other states made similar decisions in the preceding months. In December 2013, a federal judge struck down Utah’s same-sex marriage ban; in January 2014, a federal judge did the same for Oklahoma. Last February, federal judges struck down same-sex marriage bans in Virginia and Texas. The same month, another federal judge ruled that Kentucky must recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions. A federal judge ruled the same for Ohio in December 2013.

Then there are rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, which in a 5-4 decision June 2013, struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), declaring it unconstitutional to deny legally married same-sex couples the same federal benefits enjoyed by legally married opposite-sex couples. And in a separate ruling the same day, the Supreme Court maintained a ruling by a district court that said California’s Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage was also unconstitutional.

Friedman waited until after the Supreme Court decision of DOMA and Proposition 8 to set a trial date for the fall of 2013, which in turn was delayed to 2014. Ultimately, the case was heard in a nine-day trial from Feb. 25 through March 7, following which the judge took nearly two weeks to announce his decision.

Since then, there have been other possible indicators where the Supreme Court may fall on the issue of marriage equality.

In early October, the Supreme Court denied review in all of the marriage equality cases pending before it, meaning same-sex couples in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin are now free to marry.

And during a September speech in Minneapolis, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg hinted that people wondering about a Supreme Court review of the same-sex marriage issue should pay attention to what happens in the Sixth Circuit.


How it all began

What is now a crusade for marriage equality originally started as something else.

DeBoer and Rowse challenged the same-sex marriage ban so they could marry and share joint guardianship of their three special needs children. This would ensure the children have the same rights under each parent. Michigan’s current adoption code says that only married couples, single parents or one half of a married couple can adopt.

DeBoer and Rowse rescued their children from potentially rough upbringings. Adopted as newborns, one of the children was surrendered by a homeless woman, another was abandoned by a drug-addicted prostitute, and another was born to a 19-year-old. Last year, DeBoer and Rowse welcomed a fourth child to their family.

By marrying, DeBoer and Rowse can keep their family together in the event that something happens to one of them. The two women have lived together for the past decade and jointly own their residence. Both work in Detroit hospitals — DeBoer as a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit, and Rowse as an emergency room nurse.

The defendants in the case are listed as Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Schuette, representing the state of Michigan. Central to the state’s case was their claim that a household with same-sex parents is not the “optimal” environment in which to raise children, and that the “will of the people” should be upheld from the vote in 2004. The attorney general has previously sworn to uphold Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage.

“The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has ruled, and Michigan’s constitution remains in full effect,” Schuette said in a statement last November. “As I have stated repeatedly, the U.S. Supreme Court will have the final word on this issue. The sooner they rule, the better, for Michigan and the country.”

In a new statement issued Jan. 16, Gov. Rick Snyder called for clear instruction from the high court.

“We appreciate that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear an issue that has been divisive in our state and others. It’s important for the same-sex marriage question to be resolved once and for all at the highest level,” Snyder said. “I will respect the decision of the court on an issue that has stirred passionate discussion and hope that Michiganders, and others across our country, can come together as we move forward.”

The Supreme Court hearings are expected to take place at the end of April.