Gay rights advocates in Michigan cheered Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.'s announcement Friday that the federal government will recognize about 300 same-sex marriages hastily performed March 22. But the small victory translates to more complications for some newlyweds.
After a federal judge struck down the state's gay marriage ban March 21, Deborah Dolney, 28, and her fiancee, Jessie-Mae Secord, 33, seized the opportunity to get married. Four counties opened their offices the next day to issue marriage licenses, and Dolney and Secord were among those in line. But late that day, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ordered a temporary halt to the marriage ceremonies by issuing an emergency stay. The appeals court on Tuesday made the stay permanent, pending a review of the case.
Dolney now wants to change her name to reflect her marriage and travel to England for a honeymoon in late summer.
Holder's decision to grant the same-sex couples in Michigan the same rights as opposite-sex couples means Dolney can change her name on her U.S. passport. But Michigan officials have said they can't legally recognize her marriage, leaving Dolney unable to redo her state-issued driver's license — and because she does not want identification hassles, no name change for now.
"For us, it's just really good news but still a pain," Dolney said of Friday's announcement. "Our marriage is legal but not quite legal enough."
The 300 couples who married remain in a state of legal limbo. Holder said that because the state acknowledged that the marriages were lawfully entered into, there was no reason to make the couples "wait for further resolution in the courts before they may seek federal benefits to which they are entitled."
Holder's move in Michigan means that the couples will at least be able to jointly file federal taxes, get spousal Social Security benefits and seek legal immigration status for a partner.
State officials in Utah and Michigan said they would not recognize gay marriages during their ongoing legal battles.
In his statement Friday, Holder again backed same-sex marriage, which has gained momentum after the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. That action has led to suits in about a dozen states seeking to topple bans on same-sex marriage.
Since December, bans on gay marriage have been overturned in Utah, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Virginia, but those cases are on hold while they are under appeal. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage.
Equality Michigan said it expects the appeals court to decide this summer on the Michigan case, but the issue of state gay-marriage bans is expected to eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The United States government has set a worthy path for Michigan to follow," said Emily Dievendorf, executive director of the gay rights group Equality Michigan, in a statement. "Allowing these families to access the rights and benefits afforded married couples is the moral and legal thing to do."
Lisa Brown, the clerk for the Detroit-area Oakland County, issued 142 of the marriage licenses. She applauded Holder's decision Friday and called on Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to change course.
"It is extremely disappointing that we have a governor who admits these marriages were legal, but would rather deny families their benefits while he wastes taxpayer dollars on a senseless appeal," Brown said in a statement. "I urge Gov. Snyder to join the right side of history by immediately extending state benefits to all same-sex couples legally married in Michigan."
Gay rights groups and members of the state's Democratic delegation in Congress have also called on the state to drop its appeal.
But Michigan Atty. Gen. Bill Schuette has responded by saying that dropping the state's appeal would be a dereliction of his sworn duty to defend the state's Constitution, which includes the voter-approved ban on gay marriage.
Citing a review of state law and court rulings, Snyder said the couples who married last week can't legally be afforded certain protections. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has raised the possibility of going to court to challenge Snyder's finding.
Until gay marriages are recognized by the state, opportunities unavailable to same-sex couples include joint adoptions, which was the benefit sought by the lesbian couple who challenged the gay-marriage ban.
Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, who issued 57 marriage certificates, said she told at least one couple to keep pressing state officials for adoption rights — even though hope is dim in the immediate future.
"The federal government has brought these couples one step closer to equal rights," she said in a telephone interview from Mason, Mich., near Lansing. "But these families are missing out on many of the benefits afforded to all other married couples, and that is unconscionable."