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Supreme Court to hear challenge to Michigan same-sex marriage ban

Apr 28, 2015

April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse get their day in court today.
Credit Paul Sancya / Associated Press

Crowds gathered as the US Supreme Court prepared to arguments on whether same-sex marriage bans like Michigan’s violate the Constitution.

A line of people camped out for several days hoping to get into the historic arguments before the Supreme Court.

For April DeBoer, it’s been a bit longer.

“Four years that we have been waiting to be heard by the justices and to get a decision by the Supreme Court,” she said.

A car accident made the couple decide they needed to get their affairs in order. That led to the lawsuit four years ago in Detroit’s federal court. They were seeking the right to adopt the special needs kids they’re raising together. The judge in the case suggested their only real chance at success would be to challenge the same-sex marriage ban that was adopted by Michigan voters 11 years ago.

Rowse says they did not expect then that this is where they would wind up – in front of the US Supreme Court.

“A little intimidated to step inside and see all the Supreme Court justices,” she said, “but the main thing is we’re incredibly proud to be here to represent all families like ours, all couples like ours.” 

They launched their amended lawsuit without the support of most of Michigan’s gay rights movement. The movement’s leaders thought that, even if DeBoer and Rowse won in the Detroit courtroom, they’d probably lose in the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

And, in that respect, they were correct. The Sixth Circuit upheld marriage bans in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The majority opinion said it’s a question for states, not federal courts to decide.

Because the Sixth Circuit was the only jurisdiction in the country to uphold marriage bans, those four cases are now the ones before the Supreme Court.

“There’s a tension and a conflict,” said Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette. “Who decides? The courts or the voters?”

Schuette’s legal team is arguing that if voters adopted the marriage ban, only voters can change it.

“When federal courts take it upon themselves to strike down state laws based on their own view of what the law should be or based on public opinion, then we’re no longer a nation of laws,” said former Michigan Solicitor General John Bursch, who will be arguing for the ninth time before the US Supreme Court.  “We’re a nation of federal court judges.”

“There is no rational reason for these bans,” says Carole Stanyar of the DeBoer-Rowse legal team, “and then you have these enormous harms that have come from the bans.”

Stanyar says the fact that children and same-sex partners are denied critical insurance, medical, custody, and visitation rights will be a key part of the challengers’ case. Also, she says, not everything deserves to be voted on.

“The Democratic process has its limits, and constitutional rights are not subject to popular vote.”

April DeBoer was asked how soon she and Jayne Rowse plan to get married if the Supreme Court rules in their favor.  Too soon, she said.

“We truly want to make sure that we are going to be able to get married, and so we will wait until after June to make any kind of decisions about our wedding.”

June is when the Supreme Court is expected to release its decision.