A lesbian couple in Michigan who have lived together for eight years have the right to marry, a federal judge ruled, finding that the state's ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional.
In striking down the ban, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman became the ninth federal judge to strike down state gay marriage bans in successive cases. Since December, judges in Texas, Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia have found gay marriage bans unconstitutional.
"Many Michigan residents have religious convictions whose principles govern the conduct of their daily lives and inform their own viewpoints about marriage," Friedman wrote in his ruling issued late Friday. "Nonetheless, these views cannot strip other citizens of the guarantees of equal protection under the law."
He didn't issue a stay with his ruling, meaning that it appears county clerks would have to approve gay marriages as early as Monday morning. But Michigan Atty. Gen. Bill Schuette said he filed an emergency request to stop the ruling from going into effect, pending appeal, and that he "fully expected" it to be granted.
"The citizens of Michigan recognized that diversity in parenting is best for kids and families because moms and dads are not interchangeable," Schuette said. "I will continue to carry out my duty to protect and defend the [state] constitution."
April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse of Hazel Park, Mich., challenged the state's constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and woman. It was approved by 59% of state voters in 2004.
They argued that the measure violated the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Friedman didn't address the due process issue, but wrote that the ban "impermissibly discriminates against same-sex couples in violation of the Equal Protection Clause because the provision does not advance any conceivable legitimate state interest."
Both DeBoer, 42, and Rowse, 49, are hospital nurses in Detroit and serve as foster parents. They initially adopted three children as single parents, but then sought to adopt the children as a couple. Under state law, they could only do so as a married couple.
DeBoer expressed excitement with the judge's decision.
"We have waited so long for the day when I could call Jayne my legal wife and when both of us could have peace of mind knowing our three children would finally have two legal parents," she said in a statement. "Knowing that day will soon be upon us means the world to us."
During a two-week trial last fall, experts on both sides testified how same-sex couples affect the upbringing of children. The state argued that children need role models of both genders to foster proper development.
State lawyers argued in court papers that voters had called for "traditional" marriage to be upheld. At the outset of the trial, pastors who said they represented 1,000 churches across the state expressed worry that the federal court would undermine the sanctity of marriage.
In his ruling, the judge dismissed much of the expert testimony presented on behalf of the state. "Largely unbelievable," the judge repeatedly wrote.
He also said "moral disapproval" wasn't enough to justify the law.
"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. "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."
Experts testifying for the couple said children of gay parents turned out the same as children of opposite-sex families. They argued that keeping the same-sex couple from marrying eroded the entire purpose of marriage as it related to the well-being of children. For example, one of the women's deaths would have sent the child back to state custody instead of to the partner, the judge noted.
Gay rights group hailed the victory in Michigan as another sign of the increasing support for same-sex marriage.
The judge concluded in his 31-page ruling that he hoped the children of same-sex couples will grow up with respect for their families and realize they are no different than other families in their community.
"Today's decision is a step in that direction, 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," Friedman said.