Snyder stance on gay marriage sparks debate

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder may have dodged a historical bullet when an Ohio lawsuit became the title name of a U.S. Supreme Court case that may lead to legalization of same-sex marriage in America.

Instead of DeBoer v. Snyder going down in history books as the legal battle over whether states can ban gay marriage, the justices will consider a consolidated four-state case called Obergefell v. Hodges when closely watched oral arguments are held Tuesday in Washington.

Snyder, who has been at times a reluctant defendant in the courtroom battle over who can marry whom in Michigan, is OK with not having his name emblazoned on any final decision the high court hands down.

"If they decided they wanted Ohio at the top, that's one case where I'm happy to have Ohio at the top versus Michigan. I like beating Ohio in most other things, though," said Snyder, referring to his alma mater the University of Michigan's football rivalry with Ohio State University.

The Ohio same-sex marriage case involves a Cincinnati man's quest to be listed on the death certificate of the man he legally married in another state. As it turns out, that case ended up as the title case simply because the appeal arrived at the Supreme Court first.

Critics of the Republican governor say he can't continue to sidestep the three-year legal battle Hazel Park nurses April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse have waged for marriage and parenting rights as a lesbian couple.

"My kids are going to study this and they're going to know that it's a Michigan governor who was on the wrong side of history," said Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, a Democrat. "He hasn't chosen a side. It's very frustrating. He's wavering back and forth."

Snyder's name may be on the originating lawsuit DeBoer and Rowse filed for the right to have joint parental rights of their adopted children, but it's Attorney General Bill Schuette who has vigorously defended Michigan's voter-approved gay marriage ban, even butting heads with Snyder once.

Schuette, who leans farther right than Snyder on cultural issues, is a constitutionally autonomous state officer and doesn't take orders from Snyder.

"I'm sticking to the things that I can control," Snyder said recently, trying to steer clear of questions about the gay marriage case and stick to his economy-focused agenda.

Throughout the DeBoer case, Snyder has contended he's bound to defend the state's constitutional amendment. But critics contend if Snyder had wanted, he could have distanced himself from Schuette's defense of the same-sex marriage ban, which nearly 2.7 million Michigan voters approved in 2004.

Former Govs. Jennifer Granholm and John Engler both asked for separate state attorneys to defend their positions in court cases that differed from the view of Attorneys General Mike Cox and Frank Kelley.

"Why they haven't done that here is really quite surprising," said Kelly Keenan, Granholm's chief legal counsel who spent 20 years in the attorney general's office.

Snyder has deflected questions about legal strategy in the case. He's made it clear that he's as eager as gay and lesbian couples for the Supreme Court to decide whether the state's same-sex marriage ban holds up under the U.S. Constitution.

"I'm looking forward to the Supreme Court resolving this issue because, again, people have very strong feelings on this," Snyder said last week.

Civil unions backed

As a candidate for governor five years ago, Snyder voiced opposition to same-sex marriage, but said he supports civil unions.

"On gay marriage, marriage is between a man and a woman, but people should also have the ability to make contracts between themselves," Snyder said.

But as governor, the former venture capitalist from Ann Arbor has steered clear of the subject, often saying he's focused on creating jobs and solving the state's problems.

Greg McNeilly, a prominent Michigan Republican political strategist who is gay, said he believes Snyder would have been "very disappointed" had his name ended up as part of the title on the marriage case.

"He will not have to endure that as a part of his legacy," McNeilly said. "That had to have brought a smile to his face. I don't believe his heart is in fighting it."

Snyder's actions in the DeBoer case are partly why McNeilly's wedding ceremony with longtime partner Doug Meeks on March 22, 2014, inside the Ingham County Courthouse has become a legally recognized marriage in Michigan.

McNeilly and Meeks were among 323 gay and lesbian couples who rushed the courthouses in Ingham, Muskegon, Oakland and Washtenaw counties on a Saturday morning last March to be married during a fleeting few hours in which same-sex nuptials were believed to be legal.

The ceremonies were performed the morning after U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman struck down Michigan's gay marriage ban, ruling that it violates the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause.

At Schuette's urging, the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals halted the weddings.

Two days later, Snyder declared the ceremonies "legal marriages and valid marriages," but said they could not be immediately recognized because of the appeals court's halt in the legal proceedings.

Focus on other priorities

The governor, who has a law degree, said his legal counsel made the determination without any advice from Schuette because the Attorney General's Office never returned their phone calls. Snyder later decided not to appeal another judge's ruling that the 323 same-sex marriages were valid.

But the rare swipe Snyder took at Schuette last March has not appeased his critics.

"He didn't have to fight the lawsuit. He could have done what I did," said Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown, who "inherited" a defendant status in the DeBoer case from her GOP predecessor, Bill Bullard Jr. Brown ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor last year with Snyder's Democratic opponent, Mark Schauer.

McNeilly said Snyder may not have engaged because he's disinterested in getting entangled in issues outside his focus, like economic development.

Snyder recently vowed to veto a religious objections bill if lawmakers don't send him accompanying legislation extending anti-discrimination protections to gays and lesbians as well. Snyder made that assertive stand after Indiana's GOP governor came under fire for signing a religious liberties bill that was labeled a license to indiscriminate against gays and lesbians.

"He's not a culture agitator or a hustler," McNeilly said. "That's not what animates him or is fueling his governance."

Byrum, who performed McNeilly and Meeks' marriage ceremony, said the governor's near-silence on this issue sends as message as well.

"As an elected official, if you're quietly supportive but not brave enough to be openly supportive, then how are you in elected office?" Byrum said.

Staff Writer Michael Wayland contributed.