Appeals court halts Michigan gay marriages

MASON, Mich. — Same-sex couples rushed to Michigan county clerk’s offices Saturday to get hitched a day after a judge overturned the state’s constitutional ban on gay marriage, and several hundred managed to do so before an appeals court reinstituted the ban, at least temporarily.

The order by a federal appeals court in Cincinnati came after Glenna DeJong, 53, and Marsha Caspar, 51, of Lansing, were the first to arrive at the Ingham County Courthouse in the central Michigan city of Mason. DeJong and Caspar, who have been together for 27 years, received their license and were married by Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum.

“I figured in my lifetime it would happen,” Caspar said. “But now, when it happens now, it’s just overwhelming. I still can’t believe it. I don’t think it’s hit me yet.”

Similar nuptials followed one after another, at times en masse, in at least four of Michigan’s 83 counties. Those four — Oakland, Muskegon, Ingham and Washtenaw counties — issued more than 300 marriage licenses to same-sex couples Saturday.

DeJong said the threat of a stay was all the encouragement they needed.

“Come Monday, we might not be able to do it, so we knew we had a short window of time,” she said.

She was right. Later Saturday, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals froze until at least Wednesday a decision by a lower court judge to overturn Michigan’s ban. The appeals court said the time-out will “allow a more reasoned consideration” of the state’s request to stop same-sex marriages.

The court’s order was posted just a few hours after it told the winning side to respond to Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s request for a stay by noon Tuesday.

In his appeal, Schuette noted the U.S. Supreme Court in January suspended a similar decision that struck down Utah’s gay-marriage ban.

Voters approved the gay marriage ban in a landslide in 2004. But in Friday’s historic decision, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman said the ballot box is no defense to a law that tramples the rights of same-sex couples.

Schuette’s spokeswoman, Joy Yearout, said Saturday that a stay would preserve a state constitutional ban pending the appeal’s outcome. She declined to say whether the state would recognize the new marriages in that scenario.

“The courts will have to sort it out,” she said.

Yearout later said her office anticipates that the appeals court “will issue a permanent stay, just as courts have ruled in similar cases across the country.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court intervened in Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert ordered state agencies to hold off on moving forward with any new benefits for the hundreds of same-sex couples who married during the three-week window until the courts resolved the issue. Agencies were told not to revoke anything already issued, such as a driver’s license with a new name, but were prohibited from approving any new marriages or benefits.

Utah made clear it was not ordering agencies to void the marriages, but that their validity would be decided by the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Anna Kirkland, a University of Michigan professor who submitted an expert report in the Michigan case, said people who have received licenses are “legally married” regardless of what state officials do.

“A ruling from a federal judge on the meaning of the Equal Protection Clause … is binding on the state government,” said Kirkland, a professor of women’s studies and political science. “It’s the law of the land until or unless the Supreme Court says otherwise.”

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia issue licenses for same-sex marriage. Since December, bans on gay marriage also have been overturned in Texas, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Virginia, but appeals have put those cases on hold.

Elizabeth Patten, 52, and her partner of 28 years, Jonnie Terry, 50, of Ann Arbor, were the first couple married in Washtenaw County, where couples began to queue outside the clerk’s office at 5:30 a.m. Saturday and 74 licenses were issued.

“It was really surreal. I don’t know if this is the wedding we imagined,” Patten said after the impromptu ceremony performed by federal Judge Judith Levy in the basement of the county building. “But we are so pleased and honored to be a part of this process and have this opportunity today.”

The line grew, snaking around the corner, and dozens of couples and their family members hugged, hooted and hollered until County Clerk Lawrence Kestenbaum opened the doors at 8:50 a.m.

A county sheriff’s sergeant walked through the line handing out license applications. Where the form asked for the name of the “male,” lesbian couples wrote in an “f” and an “e” in front of the word.

Once paper licenses were approved by the clerk and his staff, couples headed downstairs to a room filled with pastors and a judge.

A Unitarian Universalist church in Muskegon in western Michigan had a clerk issuing wedding licenses Saturday morning. They started a couple hours earlier than planned out of concern the court would approve a stay.

“We’re trying to beat Bill Schuette to the punch,” said Harbor Unitarian Universalist Congregation Pastor Bill Freeman, who officiated dozens of weddings.

That sentiment was echoed in Mason by Joe Bissell and Justin Maynard, both 33-year-old Lansing residents, who were among more than 50 couples to get a license.

“We wouldn’t have been here today if it wasn’t for that,” Bissell said. “We would’ve invited friends and family and not pissed off our mothers.”

Not among those getting married Saturday were the two who started it all.

April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, two Detroit-area nurses who are raising three children with special needs, filed a lawsuit in 2012 because they’re barred from jointly adopting each other’s children. Joint adoption is reserved for married heterosexual couples in Michigan.

Their lawsuit sparked the two-week trial that culminated with Friday’s decision.

Their lawyer, Dana Nessel said she was “not shocked,” by the appeals courts actions.

“I am disappointed because it would have been great for people … in all 83 counties to be able to go in and get a marriage license,” she said. “Unfortunately only four (clerk’s) offices were open because it was a Saturday, and they had to make special provisions.”

Regardless, DeBoer and Rowse had said they would wait to wed, even though the appeals process could take years.

“We will be getting married — when we know that our marriage is forever binding,” DeBoer said.

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