DETROIT — Same-sex couples queued up all afternoon at county courthouses, some even carrying wedding flowers. Then a federal judge deciding whether to throw out Michigan‘s gay marriage ban shocked everyone, saying simply: Wait ’til next year.
After hearing arguments and poring over a stack of legal briefs, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman said Wednesday he needs to hear from experts on Feb. 25 before settling the fate of a 2004 Michigan constitutional amendment that recognizes marriage as being only between a man and a woman.
“This was never a scenario we imagined,” Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown said. Same-sex couples were at her office, anxious to get a marriage license if the judge ruled in their favor.
“One couple has been together for 53 years,” Brown added. “I think they’ve waited long enough.”
The lawsuit, brought by Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer, two Detroit-area nurses in a lesbian relationship, argues that Michigan’s constitutional amendment violates the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, which forbids states from treating people differently. The amendment was approved by 59 percent of voters in 2004.
Friedman clearly caught lawyers on both sides off guard, as they had agreed to have him decide the issue on arguments and briefs.
More than 100 people were in the courtroom, anticipating a decision in favor of gay marriage, and dozens more watched a video feed of the hearing in a nearby room. A groan went up in that room when Friedman said he’s not ready to make a decision.
Thirteen states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage.
An attorney for Michigan said the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that states have authority to regulate marriage. Kristin Heyse noted that more than 2.5 million voters supported the amendment.
“The people of the state of Michigan should be allowed to decide Michigan law. This is not the proper forum to decide social issues,” Heyse, an assistant attorney general, told the judge.
Rowse, 49, and DeBoer, 42, who have lived together for about eight years, declined comment outside court.
“We were all hoping for an immediate ruling, but they understand it’s a very long process,” Dana Nessel, co-counsel for the couple, told reporters.
Ninety miles away in Ingham County, Marnee Rutledge and Samantha Wolf were disappointed, too. Rutledge had a pink flower pinned to her shirt, while Wolf carried a bouquet of flowers that Rutledge gave her when proposing earlier in the day. They had a summer ceremony nearby in Holt that wasn’t legal.
“We are in our minds married,” Wolf said at the courthouse in Mason. “We had a ceremony, we took our vows. That we aren’t afforded the same rights as everybody who has stood up in front of their priest and loved ones — that’s wrong.”
Bonnie Jean of Mount Clemens in suburban Detroit legally married Heidi Jean in 2007 in Ontario, Canada, but said the marriage has no standing in Michigan. Bonnie is due to give birth to a boy in December.
“I’m already married to a woman. It’s recognized by the federal government, but not the state,” said Bonnie, who attended the hearing.
The state of Michigan says heterosexual marriage provides the best family setting for children, while attorneys for Rowse and DeBoer say research shows there’s no difference for kids in same-sex households.
“The parties must be afforded the opportunity to develop their own record in this matter with the benefit of calling witnesses and subjecting them to cross-examination,” Friedman said in an eight-page order.
Rowse and DeBoer’s lawsuit began as a challenge to a Michigan law that prevents them from adopting each other’s kids, but the case took an extraordinary turn a year ago when Friedman suggested they refile it to target the gay marriage ban.
During the hearing, co-counsel Carole Stanyar argued that the Michigan marriage amendment “enshrines” discrimination. She said U.S. history has at times revealed a lack of humanity, “but at times we right ourselves … and reaffirm the principle that there are no second-class citizens.”
Christine Weick drove 175 miles from Hopkins in western Michigan to hold a sign that said God opposes gay marriage. She stood outside the courthouse but across the street from a few dozen gay marriage supporters.
“I said, ‘Lord, what if I’m the only one out here?’ And look, I’m the only one here,” Weick said.
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