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A decade since the end of Michigan's same-sex marriage ban

Someone waves a rainbow LGBTQ Pride flag during a parade in St. Louis
Ed Ronco
IPR News
An attendee waves a rainbow LGBTQ Pride flag at a 2016 parade in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo: Ed Ronco/IPR News)

It was 10 years ago Friday that the first same-sex weddings took place in Michigan. That was one day following a Detroit federal judge’s late afternoon ruling that struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

U.S. Eastern District of Michigan Judge Bernard Friedman’s decision said the amendment to the Michigan Constitution violated equal protection and due process rights. He refused a request by then-Attorney General Bill Schuette to pause the ruling while the decision was appealed.

The following morning, four county clerks opened their doors on a Saturday to issue licenses and perform ceremonies.

At 8:05 a.m., Glenna DeJong and Marsha Caspar became Michigan’s first same-sex married couple at a ceremony at the Ingham County Courthouse in Mason.

“I pronounce you married,” said a teary-eyed Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum.

A member of Byrum’s staff acted as a witness for DeJong and Caspar. The newly married couple stayed around to do the same for other couples who showed up at the courthouse.

“We were the first, but we were worried about others that they would shut it down and they wouldn’t be able to get married,” DeJong told Michigan Public Radio. “When people came, they just weren’t leaving and so it was everybody that had been married were cheering on the next people that were getting married and witnessing each other’s, officially on their paperwork.”

DeJong called it “a race against time” because Schuette, the Republican then-state attorney general, had asked the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to issue an emergency stay that would put a stop to more same-sex weddings. The appeals court granted the request late in the day. By then, more than 300 same-sex couples in Michigan had been married.

One couple, Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer, did not join the queue. That is despite the fact that they were the ones who filed the initial case to get joint custody rights over the special-needs children they were raising together. Michigan law would only allow one of them to be named as the parent since they were not married.

It started out as an adoption rights case, but it was Judge Friedman who suggested the case was really about marriage rights and the Michigan amendment to the state constitution.

Rowse and DeBoer were concerned that getting married that day might jeopardize their status as plaintiffs. That was not an issue for Caspar and DeJong, who were part of a separate lawsuit to have their marriage recognized by the state.

But the dormant marriage ban amendment remains in the Michigan Constitution even though it is unenforceable. There are efforts to repeal it entirely.

State Rep. Jason Morgan (D-Ann Arbor) has sponsored a resolution to repeal the amendment. Morgan told the Michigan Public Radio Netowrk there is no guarantee the Supreme Court’s decision won’t be overturned someday.

“No couple in our state should ever have to live with the fear that their marriage could be put in jeopardy or that they may not be allowed to marry the person that they love in the future,” he said.

Morgan said the Supreme Court’s reversal of the Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision is evidence that could happen. Getting a proposed amendment to the Michigan Constitution on the ballot would require two-thirds super-majority votes by the Legislature or a successful petition drive. Morgan said neither of those is likely in the immediate future.

But, he said, in the meantime he is working on bills to make language in state laws gender neutral, which would address some issues dealing with LGBT marriage rights.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.