DETROIT — Stunning the courtroom, a federal judge said Wednesday he’ll hold a February trial before deciding whether to overturn Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage.
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 banning gay marriage.
“I wish I could give you a definitive ruling. … There are fact issues that have to be decided,” 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 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 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.”
Rowse and DeBoer, who have lived together for about eight years, sat just a few steps away at the plaintiffs’ table. They declined 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,” Heyse, an assistant attorney general, told the judge.
Thirteen states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage.
Several dozen people in favor of gay marriage also rallied outside of the courthouse, and many supporters of striking down the ban believed a victory was imminent.
Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown said there were lines of same-sex couples at her office anxious to get a marriage license if the judge ruled in their favor.
“This was never a scenario we imagined,” Brown said of the decision to hold a trial. “One couple has been together for 53 years. I think they’ve waited long enough.”
In Ingham County, about a dozen frustrated couples left the courthouse after hearing there would be no immediate decision 90 miles away in Detroit.
Marnee Rutledge had a pink flower pinned to her shirt. Her partner, Samantha Wolf, carried a bouquet of flowers Rutledge gave her when proposing marriage earlier Wednesday. They had a ceremony in August nearby in Holt that wasn’t legal.
“We are in our minds married,” Wolf said. “We had a ceremony, we took our vows. That we aren’t afforded the same rights as everybody who has stood up in front of their priest and loved ones — that’s wrong.”