Michigan Gay Marriage Ban is Unconstitutional

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Mar 24, 2014

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Last week, a federal judge in Michigan declared the State’s ban on gay marriage to be unconstitutional, bringing a dramatic end to a unique trial that was highlighted by bitter back-and-forth by expert witnesses who debated the impact of same-sex marriage on children.

Michigan’s Gay Marriage Lawsuit

The challenge to Michigan’s gay marriage ban, adopted into the state’s constitution in 2004, came from Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer, two nurses who sued the state for the “enshrined discrimination” in the Michigan constitution.  Rowse and DeBoer request that they be allowed to marry and adopt children in part to get joint custody of the three children they now share, two adopted by Rowse and one by DeBoer.  Michigan’s gay marriage ban prevents the two from adopting as a couple, meaning that should one of them die, custody of the children adopted by her may not pass to the surviving spouse.  Additionally, Rowse and DeBoer feel like they are a family unit and deserve the benefits and recognition of marriage.

Attorneys for Michigan responded to the lawsuit by arguing that the 2004 amendment to the state constitution was a voter driven initiative that was perfectly legal and a reflection of the will of Michigan’s population.  Last week, federal U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman determined that Michigan’s gay marriage ban was unconstitutional, and ruled in favor of Rowse and DeBoer – allowing same-sex couples in the state to marry.  Finding that the state’s laws against same-sex marriage violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, Judge Friedman overturned Michigan’s ban on grounds that it discriminated against gay couples and their children.

Trial Focuses on Same Sex Parenting

Michigan’s gay marriage trial caught national attention largely due to the dueling expert witnesses who debated the effect that same-sex marriages have on raising children.  Stanford sociologist, Dr. Michael Rosenfeld, testified on behalf of the same-sex couple challenging the law that his studies demonstrated that children of gay couples demonstrate no disadvantage as a result of their parents’ gender. Also supporting the plaintiffs were law professor Vivek Sankaran, who testified that the death of a same-sex spouse could destabilize children who may not be allowed to stay with the other due to Michigan’s ban on gay couples adopting a child, and demographer Gary Gates, who pointed out that there are a large number of Michigan same-sex couples with children and allowing them to marry would lead to economic benefits gay couples in other states enjoy.  Judge Friedman placed significant weight on the testimony of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses – and determined that children of same-sex unions are at a disadvantage when law prevents marriage.

In an effort to counter the argument that children of gay parent households are not impacted by their parents’ sexual preference, the state’s attorneys called controversial social psychologist Mark Regnerus, a professor at University of Texas whose department attempted to distance his beliefs from those of UT after his testimony.  Dr. Regnerus testified that his research concluded that children of same-sex marriages were less likely to pursue an education or find a job than children of traditional unions.  Judge Friedman pointed out that Regnerus’ study, which was heavily criticized by the plaintiffs’ experts for not measuring children who live in a same-sex household and for being funded entirely by an entity interested in preserving “the institution of marriage”, was “entirely unbelievable and not worthy of serious consideration.”

Michigan defended its gay marriage ban with other expert witnesses – ranging from academics who called to question the Rosenfeld study to leaders of the anti-LBGT National Organization for Marriage who claimed that scientists like Rosenfeld were driven by bias, and that children of same sex couples were at risk because unrepentant homosexuals are “eternally damned.”  Judge Friedman, however, found none of the state’s experts to be convincing, claiming they “represent a fringe viewpoint that is rejected by a vast majority of their colleagues across a variety of social science fields.”

Gay Marriage Halted Despite Order

Despite the victory, same-sex couples in Michigan had only hours to sanctify their union before the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay on Judge Friedman’s ruling until the case could be reviewed.  Although more than 100 same-sex couples were able to receive official marriage licenses, those who did not are once again forced to wait for a federal court to rule on the constitutionality of Michigan’s gay marriage ban. Given the federal legal system’s recent treatment of similarly discrminatory gay marriage bans, it is likely only a matter of time before Michigan’s gay community will be able to enjoy the benefits of marriage without further legal concern.

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