Gay couple's marriage battle all about 'our children'

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Hazel Park — When April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse enter the U.S. Supreme Court on April 28, they will take with them a reminder of why they started their legal journey more than four years ago: a photo of their four children.

The Hazel Park nurses are at the center of a landmark case questioning the legality of gay marriage, which is banned by a voter-approved amendment to the Michigan Constitution. The justices will hear their case, as well as same-sex marriage cases from Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

DeBoer, 44, and Rowse, 50 wear matching wedding bands from their commitment ceremony. But they say the 2008 ceremony, a public declaration of their love and commitment to each other, just isn't enough: They want to marry in the eyes of the law. They want to adopt each other's special needs children, giving them legal protections. And they want the same for thousands of other couples living in states that don't legally recognize gay marriage.

"I don't think Jayne and I would be here if it weren't for the children," said DeBoer, who met Rowse through a mutual friend 15 years ago. "The (legal) fight came because our children were being discriminated against."

Added Rowse: "In society, they place so much importance on marriage. The commitment ceremony is one thing ... (marriage) adds a legitimacy to our relationship. People respect it more. (People) feel like we did do more. We did take the step to legitimize our relationship."

DeBoer said she wants legal recognition of her commitment to Rowse because, among other things, she currently "can be thrown out of the hospital if Jayne is sick. I can be thrown out of hospital if one of my boys are sick. There are just so many protections that the legal end of being married offers that we don't have.

"We have none of the legal benefits of legal marriage and nor do our kids," she told The Detroit News. "It's simple things like insurance, Social Security ... school notes. I can't sign a permission slip for my sons because I'm not their legal parent — so there's no legality in my signature on their permissions slips."

Michigan case unique

Michigan's case is different from the others that will go before the Supreme Court, legal experts say, because it questions the legality of prohibiting gay couples to wed. The others question the recognition of same-sex marriages.

Also, Michigan's case, challenging the state's constitutional ban on gay marriage approved by voters in 2004, went through a full trial. U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman struck down the prohibition in March 2014.

The U.S. Court of Appeals overturned Friedman, so DeBoer and Rowse decided to take their case to the highest court in the land.

When they challenged Michigan's adoption code, which barred DeBoer and Rowse from adopting one another's children, DeBoer, Rowse and their attorneys had no idea the case would mushroom into a headline-grabbing, history-making case, lawyer Dana Nessel said.

"This is the accidental history-making case," said Nessel, one of the couple's attorneys. "When we talked about doing this, we never in a million years imagined that we even had a marriage case — let alone a precedent-setting seminal case on the issue of same-sex marriage. This is something that none of us anticipated."

The case has thrust DeBoer and Rowse onto a national stage and into the middle of a "hailstorm of history," Nessel said.

"None of this was supposed to happen," Nessel noted. "Everyone is shocked to be in the place we are now. They're to be commended for continuing to pursue it. At any time, they could have said 'We didn't sign up for this' and drop the whole thing. To fight one of the biggest civil rights case of our time ... is just remarkable."

Thirty-seven states have legalized same-sex marriage. Michigan is among six states with a constitutional ban against it. Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to legalize gay marriage on May 17, 2004.

Cycle of highs and lows

The cycle of cases that began in U.S. District Court in Detroit in 2012 has given the couple "emotional highs and lows."

"You get the highs of getting a decision in the courtroom and then the lows of having that decision overturned and then the anticipation of whether the (U.S.) Supreme Court is going to take the case or not take the case," DeBoer said. "Then you go from being in federal court to now facing the Supreme Court, not knowing how that is or what's going to happen there."

DeBoer's dad supports his daughter's decision to take on the legal battle.

"If this is what it takes to make her healthy, wealthy and wise, more power to her," said 67-year-old Kenneth DeBoer, a Clinton Township resident, Vietnam War veteran and former city housing inspector in Detroit. "Whether it's a gay lesbian relationship or a man and a wife, all children should have the same rights."

Some of his friends don't share that view, he said, but "I'm so thankful (April and Jayne) are doing what they're doing."

DeBoer said she and Rowse also take "the thoughts and prayers of friends and family and all of those who support us" with them to Washington, D.C.

Support for each side

Dozens of legal briefs have been filed on both sides of the argument.

Among those arguing in support of the ban is Gary Glenn, a Republican state representative and the co-author of Michigan Marriage Amendment that was approved overwhelmingly by Michigan voters in 2004.

Despite public opinion polls showing greater acceptance of gay marriage in recent years, Glenn, R-Midland, said he doesn't believe Michigan voters' attitudes have shifted.

"(Voters) would uphold the Michigan Marriage Amendment overwhelmingly," he said.

Glenn, who is president of the American Family Association of Michigan, believes the Supreme Justice will respect the votes of Michigan residents on the gay marriage issue and uphold the ban.

"They have to find that 2.6 million Michigan voters had no rational basis for determining that marriage is between one man and one woman," he said.

First things first

In between attending court hearings, meeting with lawyers and fielding journalists' questions, DeBoer and Rowse care for their children: Nolan, 6; Ryanne and Jacob, 5; and Rylee, 21/2.

With four kids to care for, they say they've not had time to think about wedding plans.

"We've talked about it and there are no definitive plans," DeBoer said. "We are definitely getting married — but when, where and how have not been discussed. We just want to get through this case. We want to get to the next step.

"So many people's lives can be changed by what we're doing and by our case. It's kind of an emotional thing to realize that what you started four years ago ... has turned into a case that could change history and thousands of people's lives."

DeBoer and Rowse say they don't have second thoughts about passing up the chance to get married last March, when about 300 same-sex couples hastily wed in Michigan, after Friedman's ruling and before the appeals court froze its impact.

"We don't have any regrets," said DeBoer. "(It) would have added to the emotional journey. We're just determined to see this through to the end."

Rowse added she wouldn't want to marry "until we knew it was forever, and until everybody in Michigan could get married."

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Michigan gay marriage timeline

2004: Michigan voters approve 51 percent to 41 percent a constitutional ban on gay marriage that also defines marriage as being between one man and one woman.

January 2012: April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse file a lawsuit against state of Michigan adoption law that denies them the opportunity to adopt one another's children because they are a same-sex couple.

March 21, 2014: U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman rules the state's gay marriage ban is unconstitutional.

March 21, 2014: Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette appeals Friedman's ruling to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

March 22, 2014: In a 10-hour window after Friedman's ruling, 323 same-sex couples are wed.

Nov. 6, 2014: Court of Appeals upholds gay marriage bans in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Nov. 17, 2014: Plaintiffs appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Jan. 15, 2015: U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith rules the same-sex marriages in Michigan are legally valid.

Jan. 16, 2015: U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear case and schedules arguments for April 28.

Source: Detroit News research