DETROIT, MI — In 14 states where same-sex marriage remains prohibited, the fight rages on: Do voters have the right define marriage? Or do individuals have the right to marry whomever they choose?
Thanks in part to a Michigan lawsuit that’s been in the courts for three years, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide the issue once and for all by summer.
“This is probably the proudest day of my great lesbian life,” said Jayne Rowse of Hazel Park after the high court granted a request to review the case that she first filed with her partner April DeBoer in January 2012.
“We’re in awe because this day has happened.”
The couple initially challenged Michigan’s adoption laws, angry over their inability to jointly adopt their three children without a legal marriage.
They later, at the suggestion of a federal judge, amended the lawsuit to directly challenge Michigan’s voter-approved gay marriage ban, which passed in a 2004 referendum.
After a long wait for their day in court, a nine-day federal trial, a ruling in their favor, a hectic, 24-hour window between court actions in which some 300 Michigan gay couples were married and an appeals court ruling reversing the first, the Supreme Court on Friday agreed to review their case, along with three others from Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.
The decision to review came a day after another major development in a separate case.
A federal judge in Detroit ruled that the state must recognize about 300 same-sex marriages that took place on the one day it was legal in Michigan.
“We were excited about yesterday, and today we have another brilliant team taking us to the Supreme court,” said Frank Colasonti, Jr. of Birmingham on Friday.
Colasonti and James Ryder were the first same-sex couple to marry in Oakland County, appearing at the clerk’s office at 5 a.m. on March 22, 2014, after a federal district judge overturned Michigan’s ban and before that decision was stayed by the appeals court that would eventually reverse it.
“Some days it’s been very up, and other days we could just cry because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Colasonti, a retired teacher who wants to adjust his pension disbursements to arrange for survivors’ benefits for his husband in the event of his death.
Gay couples have long argued that they’re being unfairly denied spousal benefits related to insurance, taxes, pensions, hospital visitation and adoption because of their sexual orientation.
But the state has argued, and the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, that it’s an issue to be decided by voters, not the courts.
Both Gov. Rick Snyder and state Attorney General Bill Schuette praised the Supreme Court’s move to review the case.
It’s important for the same-sex marriage question to be resolved once and for all at the highest level,” Snyder said in a statement.
“I will respect the decision of the court on an issue that has stirred passionate discussion and hope that Michiganders, and others across our country, can come together as we move forward.”
While the state’s arguments to preserve the ban never broached issues of faith, religious groups have played a major role in vocal opposition to legalizing gay marriage.
“Marriage is the foundation for a just society,” said Paul Long, CEO of the Michigan Catholic Conference. “It is the only institution that unites children with their mother and father together. For the sake of the common good, and to secure the fundamental building block for all of humanity, we pray the Supreme Court will inevitably find traditional marriage amendments constitutional both in Michigan and throughout the nation.”
But religious leaders can also be found among the most passionate same-sex marriage advocates.
“I’m thrilled, primarily because we’ve been at this for 10 years,” said Colleen Squires, pastor at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan in Grand Rapids.
Squires has married her female in a 2004 Massachusetts ceremony.
“It’s just awkward that if you live in Michigan, for instance, you can file your federal taxes as a married couple but you have to file separately with the state,” she said. “And that’s just one issue.”
The court plans to address two issues related to gay marriage in the upcoming review:
1. Whether the Constitution requires states to issue marriage licensees to gay couples, reviewing Michigan’s case and another out of Kentucky.
2. Whether the Constitution requires states to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, reviewing cases out of Ohio and Tennessee.
Michigan does not currently recognize marriages that took place in one of the nation’s 36 states where same-sex unions are legal.
The Supreme Court in 2013 struck down part of a federal gay marriage ban, but left the issue unsettled on a state level.
The federal government has since been recognizing gay marriages, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday the U.S. Justice Department would file a brief urging the Supreme Court to rule in favor of gay marriage when it issues an opinion later this year.
“As these cases proceed, the Department of Justice will remain committed to ensuring that the benefits of marriage are available as broadly as possible,” Holder said. “And we will keep striving to secure equal treatment for all members of society–regardless of sexual orientation.
“As such, we expect to file a ‘friend of the court’ brief in these cases that will urge the Supreme Court to make marriage equality a reality for all Americans.”
The court set February, March and April deadlines for briefs to be filed from both sides.
A lawyer for DeBoer and Rowse said oral arguments will likely take place April 27, 28 or 29. The exact date wasn’t immediately clear.
Phil Vallie-Perry, who married Michael Vallie-Perry in a Muskegon church on March 22, 2014, said he understands the state’s attempts to protect the voter-approved constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. But he hopes for a high court ruling forcing the equal recognition of his marriage.
“I don’t blame them,” he said. “I believe they’re doing what their job entitles them to do. At the same time, I don’t believe in discrimination. The government has checks and balances for a reason, and the Supreme Court is one of those checks and balances.”
A group that advocates for more public access to Supreme Court proceedings called Friday for cameras crews to be allowed to broadcast the gay marriage arguments.
“No matter which side of the same-sex marriage debate they’re on, much of the country will want to watch this case unfold,” said Gabe Roth, head of the group Fix the Court. “But because of the court’s outdated rules outlawing cameras in the courtroom, the American public will be shut out of the process as history is made. This term marks the perfect moment for the justices to finally come out of the closet and allow cameras at the Supreme Court.”
The court set a total time limit of three hours for oral arguments. Lawyers on either side of Michigan’s case will have to share 45 minutes each with Kentucky, said Carole Stanyar, attorney for DeBoer and Rowse. Ohio and Tennessee lawyers will share the other 90 minutes.
The couple’s lawyers have argued in previous court filings that the appeals court decision upholding Michigan’s ban conflicts with previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
“In Loving [v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court case that overturned bans against interracial marriage], this Court decided the core constitutional issues at hand rather than wait for further studies about the claimed perils (especially to the country’s children) of blending the races,” they argued.
The state in its response cited another past Supreme Court decision, one that came just last year, out of a Michigan case.
“As members of this Court recently observed, ‘[d]emocracy does not presume that some subjects are either too divisive or too profound for public debate,'” Schuette wrote, citing the case that upheld Michigan’s voter-approved ban against affirmative action.
A Supreme Court decision is expected decide the matter for the entire nation, including 10 other states gay marriage remains prohibited.
Judges in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, South Dakota and Texas have struck down anti-gay marriage laws, but they remain in effect pending appeals, according to the Associated Press.
A judge in Louisiana upheld that state’s gay marriage ban. The Supreme Court earlier this week declined to review that case, which has not yet been decided at the circuit appeals court level.
There have been no rulings on gay marriage lawsuits, according to the A.P., in Alabama, Georgia, Nebraska and North Dakota.
A Supreme Court ruling could also affect transgender people, said Charin Davenport, a Bay City transgender woman and LGBT activist.
“If you identify as a particular sex — let’s say for instance it’s female — but you have not had gender affirming surgery, it means you will be able to marry the man that you love if the Supreme Court rules in our favor,” Davenport said.
DeBoer and Rowse were at home with their children when news of the Supreme Court review came Friday.
Rowse said the three kids shouted and ran about and cheered when they saw their parents’ happy reaction, although they’re too young to fully understand the weight of the situation.
When they’re older, she said, their parents’ fight could mean more to them.
“I think they’ll be proud,” she said. “I hope they’ll be proud that we did this for them… And for everybody.”
Gus Burns in Detroit, Stephen Kloosterman in Muskegon, John Tunison in Grand Rapids, Sam Easter in Bay City, Jonathan Oosting in Lansing and Gary Ridley in Flint contributed to this report.