DETROIT — In a historic ruling that provided a huge morale boost to the gay-rights movement, a federal judge Friday struck down Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage, making it the 18th state in the nation to allow gays and lesbians to join in matrimony just like their heterosexual counterparts.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette immediately filed an emergency request for a stay of Friedman's ruling.
"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. "Michigan voters enshrined that decision in our state constitution, and their will should stand and be respected."
In his 31-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman heavily criticized the state's position that the will of the voters should have been upheld, noting that just because voters approve something doesn't make it right, especially when it violates the Constitution.
"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."
Two Hazel Park, Mich., nurses, April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, filed their lawsuit in January 2012, saying Michigan has no rational basis for denying them the right to get married and adopt each other's children. The women have been partners for eight years.
"It's just amazing," said DeBoer, who wiped away tears and hugged Rowse after learning of Friedman's ruling Friday afternoon. "This is what we've wanted for our family and families like ours. ... We got our day in court, and we won."
Rowse was overwhelmed.
"We're going to actually be a legalized family, a recognized family by everybody," she said.
Michigan long has argued that a single judge should not drown out the will of 2.7 million voters, 60%, who in 2004 decided that marriage is only to be between a man and a woman. The state also argued that it has a "legitimate" interest in preserving the traditional family structure because it claims children thrive best when married moms and dads raise them.
Friedman did not follow the trend of other federal judges handling similar cases across the country because he did not stay his ruling pending the outcome of an appeal, Schuette said. Earlier this week, a federal judge in Kentucky extended a stay on his ruling that tosses out that state's same-sex marriage prohibition until the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati vacates it.
Schutte said he expects the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to grant his request for a stay, noting that U.S. Supreme Court intervened in Utah's gay-marriage case and granted that state's request for a stay.
DeBoer and Rowse are raising three special-needs children together and want to get married. They also want to adopt each other's children but have not been able to because Michigan would not allow same-sex couple adoptions.
Rowse has two preschool-age boys; DeBoer has a 3-year-old daughter. Their initial suit focused only on same-sex adoptions but was broadened later to include marriage.
Unlike most federal judges who have taken up the gay-marriage issue, Friedman opted in the fall to hold a trial and give both sides a chance to present their arguments and scientific evidence — the bulk of which focused on same-sex parenting studies and child outcomes of children raised in such family structures.
Friedman's ruling came two weeks after the trial. It came just as the courts were closing for the weekend and at first dashed the hopes of a handful of gay couples who waited hours to be married.
"We've been waiting years and years. I thought the judge would've thrown us a bone," said Laura Quinn, 46, of Royal Oak, Mich. Friday was the 18th anniversary of her relationship with her partner, who stayed home while Quinn waited four hours hoping to obtain a marriage license for the couple.
When the Oakland County Courthouse closed, she vowed to return Monday to try again. But it was not clear whether gay marriages could begin immediately.
If the state gets the stay it requested, they will not.
"This ruling from a Reagan-appointed judge continues a string of diverse judicial appointees all coming to the same conclusion, that denying same-sex couples the equal right to marry is unconstitutional," said Brian Silva, executive director of San Francisco-based Marriage Equality USA.
During the trial, the state's experts said their studies showed that children of same-sex couples have poorer outcomes than kids of married moms and dads, a conclusion the judge found unbelievable. Scholars testifying for Rowse and DeBoer found no differences between children of same-sex couples and those raised by a man and a woman.
"Gays and lesbians and same-sex couples are just as confident, loving, nurturing and capable as their heterosexual counterparts," said lawyer Dana Nessell, one of several plaintiffs' lawyers in the case. "These loving couples deserve the right to marry and to adopt their children."
The plaintiffs also argued that child outcomes should have nothing to do with marriage rights, noting that no couple is required to have kids to get a marriage license.
"The people of the state of Michigan should be allowed to decide Michigan law," state attorney Kristin Heyse argued in court.
Nessell said the patchwork of legislation involving same-sex marriage has led to chaos, specifically for same-sex couples who legally are recognized in one state but move to another and have no legal recognition. It's especially problematic come tax time, she said, noting that same-sex couples, depending on where they live, have to file separately because their marriage isn't recognized.
"This has to be resolved," Nessell said. "This can't continue. You can't have this patchwork system anymore."
9 questions answered about the ruling
A look at what Friday's federal court ruling on same-sex marriage means.
Question. How soon can same-sex couples marry in Michigan?
Answer. That depends on whether the state's emergency request for a stay is granted. If it is not, couples could apply for marriage licenses early as Monday morning when county clerks' offices open. A Michigan marriage license becomes valid on the third day following application. If an emergency stay is granted, that would freeze everything pending the outcome of the appeal. On average, federal appeals last a year, but some cases drag on for years. This case could be decided in six months or in a few years.
Q. How many Michigan couples does the judge's ruling affect?
A. The most recent statistics from 2010 show nearly 14,600 same-sex couples in Michigan, twice as many as in 2000. That year 7,305 same-sex lived couples in the state; in 1990 3,389 same-sex couples lived in Michigan.
Q. Now that the judge has declared Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, can same-sex couples travel out of state, get married, and then return to Michigan and be legally recognized as a married couple?
A. Yes, unless a stay is ordered. In that case, Friedman's ruling has no effect. It just freezes everything and preserves the status quo.
Q. If same-sex marriage is legalized in Michigan, are churches and religious groups obligated under law to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies?
A. No. Churches make their own rules and are free to exercise their religious beliefs. For example, in states where same-sex marriage has been legalized, some churches continue to prohibit their clergy from taking part in such ceremonies.
Q. Can wedding planners, florists and photographers in Michigan who are against gay marriage because of their religious beliefs refuse to provide services to same-sex couples who are getting married?
A. Yes. They could get sued over it. However, Michigan's antidiscrimination law does not protect gays or lesbians. This group of individuals is not a protected category under state law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, age and disability among other things. Sexual orientation is not covered. A ruling favoring same-sex marriage does not affect this.
Q. If a same sex couple travels out of state and adopts children together, does the state recognize both individuals as the parents when they return to Michigan?
A. Yes. This hasn't always been the case. But one same-sex couple successfully won that issue in the Michigan Court of Appeals. So now, when a same-sex couple adopts children outside the state, both partners are considered the legal parents here.
Q. How many states have legalized same-sex marriage and how many same-sex couples are living in the USA?
A. To date, 18 states have legalized same-sex marriage. An estimated 646,500 same-sex couples live in the United States, up significanlty from 358,390 such couples in 2000 and 145,130 in 1990.
Q. What percentage of the U.S. population identifies themselves as being gay, lesbian or bisexual?
A. In 2012, 4% of males identified as gay or bisexual. In 1992, the figure was 2.5%. In 2012, 3.4% of females identified as being lesbians or bisexual, compared to 1.1% 20 years earlier.
Q. How many Americans now support same-sex marriage?
A. More than half, 54%, of Americans now support same-sex marriage, according to a February study from the Pew Research Center; 39% are opposed to it.