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Michigan judge to consider motions today in marriage equality challenge

Marriage equality

Paul Sancya/AP
April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse with their children at their home in Hazel Park, Michigan.

By Jacob Combs

A federal judge in eastern Michigan will consider arguments today in a lawsuit filed by two Detroit women challenging the state’s refusal to offer marriages to same-sex couples.  Last September, Judge Bernard Friedman encouraged the couple, who had asked him to overturn a Michigan’s limitations on adoption rights for same-sex partners, to expand their case to challenge the state’s 2004 constitutional amendment on marriage equality.  Michigan’s ban is one of the most prohibitive in the nation, also barring same-sex couples from any form of legal protections through civil unions or domestic partnerships.

The hearing will be held at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit and will consider Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer’s claims that Michigan’s marriage ban violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protections provisions.  It is possible a ruling could be handed down today, although the couple does not seem to have filed a motion for summary judgment.  The order for today’s hearing simply references two orders to dismiss the case, one of which–filed by the Oakland County Clerk–was withdrawn late last month by a clerk who won the position in the November 2012 election.

The remaining motion, filed on behalf of the state by Attorney General Bill Schute, argues that there is no fundamental right to marriage equality:

“Michigan’s marriage amendment bears a reasonable relation to legitimate state interest.  Michigan supports natural procreation and recognizes that children benefit from being raised by parents of each sex who can then serve as role models of the sexes both individually and together in matrimony. Plaintiffs fail to allege facts showing there is no rational basis for these legitimate state interests.”

A state official told the AP there would be “potential legal chaos” if Judge Friedman throws out the marriage equality ban.  Even if he were to do so, such a ruling would likely be stayed pending appeal, especially in light of the Supreme Court’s planned consideration of California’s marriage equality ban, Proposition 8, later this month at oral argument.

The Michigan case, DeBoer v. Snyder, differs significantly from the Prop 8 case and other marriage equality challenges pending in the Ninth Circuit out of Hawaii and Nevada because Michigan provides so few legal rights to same-sex couples.  In the other three states, same-sex couples are provided all the rights of marriage but are not allowed to use the official designation of ‘marriage’ for their unions.  A ruling by Judge Friedman invalidating Michigan’s laws could possibly set the stage for another Supreme Court case on marriage equality, regardless of the Court’s decision this spring in the Prop 8 case.

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