Same-sex marriage in Michigan left in legal limbo after weekend court orders

Plaintiffs to lift the ban on gay marriage, April DeBoer, background left, and her partner Jayne Rowse, stand outside Federal Court in Detroit, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014 on a lunch break during their trial. (Mandi Wright/Detroit Free Press/MCT)

When Brighton senior William Joseph learned of Friday's court order ruling Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, it came as a welcomed surprise.

"The decision makes sense," Joseph said. "If you look at what's happened in other states over the past several months, it's where the country is headed."

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman found Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage, approved by voters in 2004, unconstitutional. It violates the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause, he stated.

"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 wrote in his ruling. "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."

Following the order, Attorney General Bill Schuette filed an emergency request for a stay in court.

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay on Saturday effective through Wednesday, meaning same-sex marriages are put on hold at least until then.

"In 2004, the citizens of Michigan recognized that diversity in parenting is best for kids and families because moms and dads are not interchangeable," Schuette said in a statement. "Michigan voters enshrined that decision in our state constitution, and their will should stand and be respected."

However, about 100 same-sex couples married in Michigan between Friedman's order and the circuit court's stay ruling. It is unclear if the state will recognize those marriages.

The issue of same-sex marriage is likely to stay at the forefront of state politics over the coming days and weeks as the case moves through court and the 2014 elections.

Joseph, a political science student, said he thinks the issue is likely to remain a "hot topic" this year. He said the legislation might give Democrats an advantage over Republicans in November.

"The fact that the attorney general appealed it wasn't a surprise," Joseph said. "He's a Republican, we've got a Republican governor, a Republican Legislature. The Republican Party, obviously, hasn't made equality one of its goals."

It would not be the first time same-sex marriage played a large role in an election year.

In 2004, 58 percent of Michigan voters approved the amendment to the state's constitution currently in question, which defines marriage as between "one man and one woman."

Since then, however, voters' attitudes on same-sex marriage appear to have shifted significantly.

A survey released earlier this month by Michigan State University, conducted over eight weeks ending on Feb. 10, found that 54 percent of Michiganders support "the right of gay and lesbian couples to be legally married," compared to 36 percent who are opposed. The poll was conducted via landline and cell phone to 1,008 respondents statewide and has a margin of error of 3.1 percent.

Gov. Rick Snyder's office indicated it intends to continue enforcing the state constitution's 2004 amendment.

"Michigan's statute and our state's Constitution are very clear on this matter," Snyder spokesperson Sara Wurfel said in a statement. "This was not about LGBT or adoption issues, but about obligation to defend the law and Constitution as people wrote or amended it, and the voter-initiated language in the Constitution clearly prohibits him from giving the benefits of marriage to a same-sex couple."

Snyder's likely Democratic opponent, Mark Schauer, called Friedman's ruling a "major victory" in a statement.

"While I know there are differing views on this issue, I firmly believe every Michigander deserves equal protection under the law, and today's ruling reaffirms this fundamental American value," he said.

Seventeen states, along with the District of Columbia, recognize same-sex marriage. Michigan joins Texas, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Kentucky as states with constitutional bans on same-sex marriage overturned in court and put on stay.