Judge: Michigan must recognize 323 same-sex marriages

Oralandar Brand-Williams and Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — The state must recognize more than 300 same-sex marriages, a federal judge ordered Thursday, saying the unions are constitutionally protected.

U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith's ruling comes two months after a federal appeals court upheld Michigan's ban on gay marriage that invalidated the unions of 323 same-sex couples who received marriage licenses in March. It also came a day before the U.S. Supreme Court was expected to announce whether it will take up a case challenging the state's voter-approved ban.

Martin Contreras, left, and Keith Orr celebrate after getting married at the Washtenaw County Building on Main Street in Ann Arbor on March 22, 2014.

As part of his ruling, Goldsmith allowed for a 21-day stay to allow for appeals before his opinion becomes law.

"Even though the court decision that required Michigan to allow same-sex couples to marry has now been reversed on appeal, the same-sex couples who married in Michigan during the brief period when such marriages were authorized acquired a status that state officials may not ignore absent some compelling interest — a constitutional hurdle that the defense does not even attempt to surmount," Goldsmith wrote. "In these circumstances, what the state has joined together, it may not put asunder."

The weddings were performed by clerks in Ingham, Oakland, Muskegon and Washtenaw counties March 22, a day after U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman struck down as unconstitutional the state's same-sex marriage ban. Afterward, Gov. Rick Snyder said the affected couples, though the marriages were legally performed, don't have the state benefits of marriage.

Reacting Thursday to the ruling, Snyder said the state would recognize the 323 marriage certificates issued March 22 until otherwise directed by the courts.

"My view is I'm going to follow what the law is and if a federal judge has made a judgment, until that's otherwise appealed, changed or modified, we'll respect what a federal judge is saying," Snyder told reporters at a bill-signing ceremony in Lansing.

Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel later Thursday said the governor's office is analyzing the judge's order "to fully understand it and its implications (and) determine what those appropriate actions to comply will be."

Snyder said last March the state could not recognize the marriages because the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals had issued a stay, halting the implementation of Friedman's ruling and keeping the constitutional ban on the books.

The legality of the 323 marriages would not be affected even if the Supreme Court ultimately decided to uphold the Michigan ban.

Their legal status would be affected if Goldsmith's ruling is appealed or if the appeals court ruling was to be challenged before the Supreme Court.

Appeal appears likely

Goldsmith's ruling was good news for Marsha Caspar, the lead plaintiff in the case in front of Goldsmith, and Glenna DeJong, who were the first same-sex couple to be married in Michigan. They wed in Ingham County.

"I'm so happy," Caspar, 53, said Thursday from her hospital room at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. The news about having her marriage to DeJong legally recognized was what she awakened to coming out of anesthesia, DeJong said.

The couple brushed off the 21-day waiting period for the state of Michigan to respond to the ruling.

"We waited for three decades. We can wait another three weeks," said DeJong, 54.

Thursday's ruling will allow the couples the same legal protection, once the 21-day stay is lifted, as other couples for tax filings, health care, adoption, visitation rights and other issues.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who appealed Friedman's ruling, said Thursday: "We are reviewing Judge Goldsmith's decision, but as I have said repeatedly, the sooner the United States Supreme Court makes a decision on this issue, the better it will be for Michigan and America."

University of Richmond (Virginia) law school professor Carl Tobias says he believes it's unlikely the state won't appeal the court's ruling.

"The (attorney general) has defended the (gay marriage) ban, and appealing would be consistent with that defense," Tobias said Thursday.

A lawsuit challenging Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage was brought by Hazel Park residents April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, who sought to adopt one another's special needs children and also to marry.

Jay Kaplan, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Thursday: "These marriages were legal. The judge says the state's refusal to recognize the marriage was unconstitutional and discriminatory."

'We're thrilled'

For Ann Arbor residents Keith Orr, 57, and Martin Contreras, 55, Thursday marked a great day as friends and family came by to celebrate the court victory with them.

"It's pretty exciting," said Contreras, who also was married in March and was part of the lawsuit to have his marriage to Orr recognized. "The eventual recognition is something we felt would happen."

Orr added: "We're thrilled. Of course, it would be better if we didn't have to wait 21 days."

Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, released a statement immediately after the ruling.

"Last March, 300 committed couples paid their fees, were issued marriage licenses, stood before family and friends, and got married," Wolfson said. "Unfortunately, it took a federal court to get the state of Michigan to treat them as what they are: married.

"With marriage cases, including one out of Michigan, now before the Supreme Court, it is time for the justices to grant review and end marriage discrimination nationwide once and for all, without delay, and with no American family or state left behind."

Other states pursue cases

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati issued a stay on same-sex marriages March 22. On Nov. 6, the court in Cincinnati upheld Michigan's ban, and those in Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Meanwhile, same-sex couples seeking the right to marry in Ohio have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the appeals court ruling that upheld that state's ban, plus bans in Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee. The Ohio appeal focuses on the state's refusal to recognize out-of-state gay marriages because of its own ban.

In appealing to the Supreme Court, the plaintiffs in the Ohio case argued states should be forced to recognize same-sex marriages performed out of state.

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Detroit News Staff Writers Robert Snell and Chad Livengood contributed.