What's Going on in Michigan?
Michigan may be the most important state for marriage equality in the country right now, thanks to its one-of-a-kind federal lawsuit known as DeBoer v. Snyder. (Above: Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer.)
Same-sex marriage has been banned by statute since 1996, and relationship recognition of any kind has been banned since 2004, when voters approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions. In early 2012 lawyers filed suit against the state. Initially, the case had a fairly narrow scope, but U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman expanded it to deal with marriage equality in general. Friedman held a trial in late 2013, which is highly unusual — most marriage cases are decided through summary judgment, with each party simply filing briefs and conducting oral arguments. But as former U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker did in the case that ultimately struck down California's marriage ban known as Proposition 8, Friedman wanted witnesses and evidence.
Friedman issued a strong ruling in early 2014, overturning Michigan's marriage ban. For one day, same-sex couples were allowed to wed in Michigan before a stay requested by the state's Republican leadership prevented any further licenses from being issued. Although they weren't initially involved, the American Civil Liberties Union and Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders were by this time partnering with the private attorneys who initially filed the case.
In a decision that broke with every other federal appellate court to consider the issue since June 2013, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Friedman's decision and ruled November 6, 2014, that Michigan's marriage ban was, in fact, constitutional. Plaintiffs petitioned the Supreme Court to review the decision, and in January the court granted their request, known as a writ of certiorari.
There are a few other lawsuits addressing marriage in Michigan, dealing with the recognition of out-of-state licenses and the licenses issued during the brief equality window. Though important, those cases are unlikely to be the deciding lawsuits on this issue.
What Happens Next?
Although oral arguments have yet to be scheduled, most court watchers expect the U.S. Supreme Court to hear such arguments in late April, likely announcing a decision by the end of the court's 2015 term in late June. That schedule is purely speculative, based on the timeline laid out by the court for briefing, and could change.
If the Supreme Court upholds marriage equality, there would likely be a brief period of confusion during which antigay state officials struggle to comply with the ruling. Some states might try to delay the start of marriage as long as possible, or create artificial roadblocks to obtaining a marriage license — as lawmakers in conservative marriage equality states like Oklahoma and Kansas have attempted.
It's hard to say what would happen if the Supreme Court rules against marriage equality. It's possible, though unlikely, that states that currently have marriage equality could try to roll back the freedom to marry. What's most likely is that such a ruling would maintain the status quo, with marriage equality remaining in states that already have it, while bans would remain in states that do not. In that case, the only recourse would be a slow, expensive state-by-state effort to repeal the bans. That would need to be prefaced by a lengthy public education campaign that would likely take years to secure a shift in public opinion large enough to overturn antigay constitutional amendments.
How Do Michiganders Feel About Marrige Equality?
Public support for marriage equality has surged over the last decade. In 2004, Glengariff Group measured support at just 24 percent, to 61 percent opposed. The same survey conducted in January 2014 put support at 56.2 percent to 33.8 percent opposition. In recent months a New York Times/CBS poll showed support at 47 percent to the opposition's 39 percent.
Similarly, Michigan State University's State of the State survey showed support rising from 48 percent in 2010 to 54 percent in 2013. These findings are generally consistent with the rising public support for marriage nationwide.
The arguments in Michigan are similar to those made in most other marriage equality cases: that marriage equality is required by the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution. Judge Friedman agreed with that argument, as well as with witnesses who testified that LGBT people make effective parents.
The plaintiffs also pointed out that even if gay and lesbian parents were not as effective as straight parents, that would still have no bearing on marriage law, as fitness to raise children has never been a prerequisite for obtaining a marriage license.
Friedman cited the "personal sacrifice" of the plaintiff couples in seeking equal protection for their families.
What Are the Arguments Against Marriage Equality?
Michigan's arguments are generally consistent with those of other states: that the will of the voters is more important than the U.S. Constitution. The state also presented evidence — since discredited — that gay and lesbian parents provide an inferior environment for children. Friedman called that viewpoint "unbelievable" and "rejected by the vast majority."
In reversing Friedman's decision, the Sixth Circuit essentially threw up its hands at the case and said that voters should be the ones to decide marriage policy, since the court couldn't know what might come about in the wake of marriage equality.
The state attorneys also argued that marriage equality would bring about "unintended consequences" and explained that marriage discrimination was based on "tradition and morality." They also claimed that excluding gays and lesbians from marriage would prompt straight couples to marry.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has taken the lead on opposing equality for families headed by gay and lesbian people. "Michigan voters enshrined that decision in our state constitution, and their will should stand and be respected," he told reporters after Friedman's initial ruling. "I will continue to carry out my duty to protect and defend the Constitution."