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Lansing — The state of Michigan will not challenge a court decision that legalized the marriages of more than 300 same-sex couples who were wed in March.

"The judge has determined that same-sex couples were legally married on that day, and we will follow the law and extend state marriage benefits to those couples," Gov. Rick Snyder said in a statement Wednesday.

The weddings took place the day after U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman struck down Michigan's voter-approved ban on gay marriages, but before the impact of that decision was frozen by a U.S. appeals court. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the overall challenge to the ban on gay marriages in late April. It was brought by two Hazel Park nurses.

Michigan had refused to recognize the March 22 marriages; the refusal was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of eight of the couples. On Jan. 15, U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith ordered the state to recognize the 323 same-sex marriages that took place during the one-day window and gave the state until Thursday to decide whether it would appeal.

The ACLU maintained that the legality of the 323 marriages would not be affected even if the Supreme Court ultimately upholds the ban, because the state's prohibition was not in effect on the day the weddings took place.

"We're thankful that the state finally has made the wise choice to acknowledge the vows that these couples made and to recognize the love that these families share," said Jay Kaplan, an attorney for the ACLU.

"We're elated that, with the recognition of their marriages, these couples no longer have to live under a dark cloud of confusion and uncertainty."

Frank Colasonti Jr., 62, of Birmingham, said Snyder "gave us an early Valentine's Day gift" by deciding not to appeal Goldsmith's decision.

One of the first orders of business, Colasonti said, will be to put the name of his husband, James B. Ryder, 49, on Colasonti's pension papers.

Bianca Racine, a 30-year-old Auburn Hills resident and a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit, could barely contain her excitement Wednesday after getting the news.

"It's final," said Rachine, who wed 29-year-old Carrie Miller last March. "There is no more worrying. This is completely unexpected. I was prepared Thursday to bite my nails and pace the floor (waiting of news of an appeal)."

Ann Arbor residents Martin Contreras, 55, and his husband, Keith Orr, 57, also celebrated the news Wednesday. They, too, wed in March.

"I think they finally saw the handwriting on the wall," Contreras said. "We're legal again. I hope it sticks this time."

Wednesday's announcement, said Gina Calcagno, campaign manager for Michigan for Marriage, "means that more than 300 couples will finally receive the respect and dignity they deserve from their state.

"We remain hopeful that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of the freedom to marry so that all families in Michigan can enjoy the same rights and privileges they deserve," Calcagno added.

Voters OK'd ban in 2004

Goldsmith's ruling on the 323 marriages, performed in Ingham, Oakland, Muskegon and Washtenaw counties, came two months after a federal appeals court overturned Friedman and upheld a ban on gay marriage approved by 2.7 million residents in 2004.

The state refused to recognize the March 22 marriages because, it contended, the Appeals Court stay on Friedman's ruling kept the constitutional ban on the books.

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, who was among four county clerks who married gay and lesbian couples March 22, praised Snyder's decision not to press it further.

"Love has won today for the 300 same-sex marriages that took place last spring, affording these couples the rights they deserve, like all other families under the law," she said in a statement. "This is a critical step forward in our fight to secure the freedom to marry for all Michiganders."

The Rev. Stacy Swimp, a gay marriage opponent, was unhappy with the governor's decision.

"He had disavowed his elected responsibility to defend the Michigan Marriage Amendment, which was decided on by 2.7 million Michigan voters in 2004," said Swimp, a member of the National Coalition of Black Pastors and Christian Leaders for Marriage Protection. The organization filed legal briefs in the case that will go before the Supreme Court.

"But rest assured that I and every pastor who stands strongly upon God's word will continue to resist (Snyder), every elected official, every organization, every activist which seek to refine God's definition of marriage between one man and one woman."

Couple leading fight

In the broader same-sex marriage case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Hazel Park nurses April DeBoer and Jane Rowse are seeking to legally marry and adopt each other's three special-needs children.

Legal experts say they do not believe the DeBoer case before the nation's highest court will have any bearing on the legality of the 323 marriages performed last March.

"I think that it is valuable that Gov. Snyder will not appeal as that would be divisive and serve no real purpose, as (the Supreme Court) will resolve the merits by June," said University of Richmond (Virginia) law school professor Carl Tobias.

bwilliams@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2027

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