DETROIT - Stunning the courtroom, a federal judge said Wednesday he’ll hold a February trial before deciding whether to overturn Michigan’s definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman said he won’t make a decision until after hearing testimony Feb. 25 from experts on whether there’s a legitimate state interest in not allowing gays to marry.
“I wish I could give you a definitive ruling . There are fact issues that have to be decided,” Judge Friedman said.
He clearly caught the lawyers on both sides off-guard, as they had agreed to have him decide the issue on arguments and briefs. More than 100 people were in the courtroom, anticipating a decision in favor of gay marriage, and dozens of others watched a video feed of the proceedings in a nearby room.
A groan went up in that room when Judge Friedman said he’ll wait.
Two Detroit-area nurses in a lesbian relationship, Jayne Rowse, 49, and April DeBoer, 42, wanted to adopt each other’s children, not rewrite Michigan law. But their lawsuit took an extraordinary turn a year ago when Judge Friedman suggested they refile it to challenge the gay-marriage ban.
In doing so, they argued the state’s constitutional amendment that declares marriage as between a man and a woman violates the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. That amendment was approved by 59 percent of Michigan voters in 2004.
“This amendment enshrines discrimination in the state constitution for all time,” the couple’s attorney, Carole Stanyar, told the judge.
Moments earlier, she said U.S. history has at times revealed a lack of humanity, “but at times we right ourselves and reaffirm the principle that there are no second-class citizens.”
The two women, who have lived together for about eight years, sat just a few steps away at the plaintiffs’ table. They declined to comment outside court.
“We were all hoping for an immediate ruling, but they understand it’s a very long process,” co-counsel Dana Nessel told reporters.
An attorney for Michigan said the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that states have authority to regulate marriage. Kristin Heyse noted that more than 2.5 million voters supported the amendment.
“The people of the state of Michigan should be allowed to decide Michigan law. This is not the proper forum to decide social issues,” Ms. Heyse, an assistant attorney general, told the judge.
Thirteen states and the District of Columbia permit gay marriages. Several dozen people in favor of gay marriage also rallied outside of the courthouse, and many supporters of striking down the ban thought a victory was imminent.
Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown said there were lines of same-sex couples at her office eager to get a marriage license if the judge ruled in their favor.