A federal judge has overturned Michigan’s ban on marriage equality, and in so doing has made some important statements against the religious right’s tactics. Here’s what you need to know.
1) The Details: Who Brought the Michigan Suit, and Why is it Significant?
Almost two years ago a Michigan same-sex couple, April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, filed a challenge to the state’s 2004 constitutional amendment banning marriage equality. Specifically, the couple sought to challenge how because Michigan uses marriage status to confer joint parenting rights in cases of adoption, the same-sex couple were banned from jointly adopting. In so doing, the couple challenged the state’s ban on marriage equality, saying it was this mechanism that refused them equal parental rights and therefore equal treatment under the law. This is the first suit to specifically tackle the issue of a ban on joint adoption by same-sex couples in this manner.
The latest leg in this case was heard by senior U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman, a Reagan appointee.
Michigan attorney general Bill Schuette defended the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. The state’s main argument during almost two weeks of hearings was that because the state’s voters enacted the ban their will must be respected.
A number of outside special interest groups were brought in to try to bolster the state’s defense, with perhaps the most notable face being that of Mark Regnerus, the man behind the infamous and widely discredited parenting study that seemed to have been specifically tailored for use in cases such as this to try to discredit same-sex couples.
2) Ban Harms Same-Sex Couples by Depriving Them of Equal Treatment
On Friday, March 21, Judge Friedman delivered his verdict in this case, ruling that Michigan’s constitutional ban on marriage equality violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment without advancing “any conceivable state interest.”
Judge Friedman cited the Supreme Court decision in Windsor from last year which toppled Section 3 of the federal ban on gay marriage recognition, otherwise known as the Defense of Marriage Act, but he also cited Loving v. Virginia which of course was the landmark suit that overturned anti-miscegenation’s laws:
This position, which the state defendants advance again in the present case, is just as ineffectual now as it was in Loving. Taken together, both the Windsor and Loving decisions stand for the proposition that, without some overriding legitimate interest, the state cannot use its domestic relations authority to legislate families out of existence.
Further, Friedman specifically took aim at the state’s continued reliance on the argument that because the ban was voter-enacted it somehow has more weight than had it been an act of the legislature. Not true, said Friedman:
The Court is not aware of any legal authority that entitles a ballot-approved measure to special deference in the event it raises a constitutional question. On the contrary, the Supreme Court has clearly stated that if . . . an enactment violates the U.S.Constitution – whether passed by the people or their representatives – judicial review is necessary to preserve the rule of law… .
Friedman also dedicated a portion of his decision to talking about the levels of judicial scrutiny. He noted that binding Sixth Circuit precedent, under which Michigan falls, means that he is unable to use the strictest level of scrutiny for cases on gay rights as the Ninth Circuit is now doing, but that he doesn’t need to because Michigan’s Marriage Amendment is so antagonist to Equal Protection it fails even the most basic test called rational scrutiny.
3) Author of Anti-Gay Study Gets Slapped Down
As noted above sociologist Mark Regnerus of Texas University, whose anti-gay study caused outrage in 2012 for its serious flaws, gave testimony in this suit in which he aped the findings of his study that appeared to show children of same-sex couples were less well adjusted and did worse in life than children raised by heterosexual couples.
Judge Friedman pulled no punches in delivering his verdict on the study, slamming it for being biased from the outset and not actually investigating children from in tact same-sex parent households at all:
“The Court finds Regnerus’s testimony entirely unbelievable and not worthy of serious consideration. The evidence adduced at trial demonstrated that his 2012 ‘study’ was hastily concocted at the behest of a third-party funder, which found it ‘essential that the necessary data be gathered to settle the question in the forum of public debate about what kinds of family arrangement are best for society’ and which ‘was confident that the traditional understanding of marriage will be vindicated by this study.’ … While Regnerus maintained that the funding source did not affect his impartiality as a researcher, the Court finds this testimony unbelievable. The funder clearly wanted a certain result, and Regnerus obliged.”
“Regnerus’s NFSS study also suffered from another defect in that it failed to measure the adult outcomes of children who were actually raised in same-sex households. In short, the isolated studies cited by the state defendants do not support the argument that children raised by heterosexual couples have better outcomes than children raised by same-sex couples. To the contrary, the overwhelming weight of the scientific evidence supports the “no differences” viewpoint.”
Regnerus has not yet issued a response or given his thoughts on the ruling.
4) Marriage Equality Begins in Michigan
Unlike in other cases, Judge Friedman’s order went into effect immediately. This meant that, on Saturday, hundreds of couples were able to marry within Michigan state, some of whom had waited a lifetime for this joyous day.
However, equality wasn’t to last long within Michigan’s borders.
5) Marriage Equality Now Stayed Pending Appellate Court Hearing
The state immediately appealed Judge Friedman’s ruling and the Sixth District Court of Appeals on Saturday granted an emergency stay pending further deliberation of whether a stay is necessary in this case or whether there is any harm in allowing same-sex marriages to continue while the courts mull the constitutionality of the Michigan Marriage Amendment. Given that the Supreme Court has previously stayed a lower court decision like this, it is likely the Sixth Circuit will defer and keep the stay in place.
Regardless, this puts the same-sex couples who were married on Saturday in a strong position to also join as plaintiffs in this suit.
The Sixth Circuit will decide by Wednesday whether it will lift its stay of the decision.
With this decision Michigan joins Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah in having their same-sex marriage bans currently under judicial scrutiny, as well as a number of other states which are currently defending various aspects of their anti-gay marriage bans in court.
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