DETROIT – At a rally before their court case on Oct. 16, Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer were cautiously optimistic. “This is the beginning of the end for our journey. We know we have a long fight, but we’re hoping that we get some start of an answer today,” DeBoer said.
The Hazel Park couple began their journey nearly two years ago when they sought the right to jointly adopt each other’s adopted children. Since making their first claim against the State of Michigan and the Oakland County Clerk’s Office, the case has blossomed with complexities and connections beyond what could happen for this one family.
The most notable change came when U.S. District Court Judge Bernard Friedman nudged the couple forward in amending their claim to include same-sex marriage. Then the decision was put off until after The U.S. Supreme Court made their rulings on similar marriages in other states. A new Oakland County Clerk took office, changing the County’s response to the claims by firing corporation counsel and bringing on an attorney to state that the office supports the couple’s claim. And alongside the legal twists and turns, the family has found more support than they ever could have imagined.
The support was evident Oct. 16 as nearly 200 people rallied on W. Lafayette St. across from the Federal Courthouse in Detroit. Among them were a dozen clergy members from varying faith traditions, many same-sex couples, and even DeBoer’s mother Wendy who spoke passionately about the grandchildren she has – both legally and un-recognized. “The message is equality for all people. The U.S. Constitution was written for all the people, not a select group,” she said. “This is the time, the place, for all to be protected under the Constitution. No matter how many laws are passed that include exclusions such as my beautiful grandchildren that Jayne and April have blessed me with, who don’t have the same rights as my other three beautiful grandchildren because their birth circumstances were different. These children were chosen for April and Jayne by the grace of God. They love their Mamma and Mommy, as I do. And they should have the same rights.”
Missing from the gatherers were the three young children whose legal rights are at stake in the case. DeBoer explained, “Unfortunately we were not able to bring our kids… they’re at home. Many people have asked if they know anything. They know that we’re at court. They know that they’ve had their pictures taken quite a few times in the last couple of days. But they don’t know the impact of this. And they won’t for quite a few years. And I’m kind of happy that they don’t know right at this point in time what’s going on. I’m happy that they don’t know that they don’t have the same rights as all the other kids they’re going to school with. It’s kind of nice and I’m hoping by the time they do realize that, that we will have equality in Michigan and that our children will be protected, and our relationships will be protected. That’s the goal of this.”
Attorney Dana Nessel spoke to the crowd also, hopefully that a resolution might come. “This has been such a long struggle and we’re so excited to get to the point where we are today. We know we really haven’t achieved anything yet, but we are so hopeful that at long last there will be some relief for very long-suffering families like our family, like April and Jane’s family, like all these families across the state,” she said.
Across the street, one solitary woman stood with a sign condemning gays as sinners.
Beyond the courthouse, other gatherings were forming across the state as a potential legal loophole might allow for a small window of time where same-sex couples in Michigan could legally marry.
Had Judge Friedman ruled in the Hazel Park couple’s favor, and also not issued a stay, it would have made gay marriage legal. A stay is an order that puts a ruling on hold pending an appeal. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has already made it clear that he intends to appeal if the case does not go his way. The window of opportunity, if it happened at all, might have been anywhere from minutes, to hours, to likely less than a day. But in places like Oakland, Washtenaw and Ingham County, people in love lined up and waited. Equality Michigan even set up a page on their website letting people know more whether their county intended to issue licenses or not pending a positive outcome on the case.
In an effort to discourage County Clerks, Schuette’s office released a statement to all clerks on the afternoon of the court appearance answering the question on whether or not clerks could issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
“The short answer is that until the matter reaches final disposition on appeal from any adverse order, you are forbidden by Michigan law from issuing’ a marriage license to same-sex couples during’ the pendency of the appeal.”
Speaking outside the courthouse, Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown expressed her frustration at not being able to grant same-sex couples. “People come up to the counter to apply for a marriage license and I have to say no to some people just based on who they want to marry and I don’t think that’s right.”
While legal opinions may differ on the validity of marriages that could have been performed in that time, Judge Friedman ultimately did not allow for a summary judgment in the case and instead set a date for a full trial.
Judge Friedman said in court, “I can’t grant the motions today. I’m in the middle. I have to decide this as a matter of law. I intend to do so.”
Now both sides will set witness lists and argue the facts in the case. The trial is set to begin Feb. 25.
“We welcome the opportunity to present our experts in the case,” Nessel said. “Honestly we have an overwhelming amount of evidence to present to the court to show that same-sex parents are every bit as good as opposite-sex parents. We know that to be the truth. We have an incredible amount of sociologists, psychologists, and so many professionals out there who virtually unanimously agree this to be the case… We look forward to seeing who, if anyone, the State has to offer for their proposition that same-sex parents are not good enough, not good enough to parent children, are not good enough to adopt children, and that same-sex couples ought not to be permitted to marry because their parenting is not adequate. We don’t think there’s anyone who’s going to be able to credibly suggest that that’s the case.”
Outside the courtroom, and across social media, people were surprised and disheartened by the Judge’s decision. Lauren Brutenell of Berkley had come with her young child to hear the case. She cried outside of the courthouse. “Postponing this until February, you know, you don’t know what tomorrow brings. If something happens to me, my partner Tiffany, she has no rights. She has nothing. She can’t adopt our child who we’ve brought up who we both love so much. It’s just, it’s terrible.”
Emily Dievendorf, director of Equality Michigan, was not happy with the judge’s decision to move to a full trial. “I think that this is another case of justice delayed, justice denied. And working on social justice and civil rights for the LGBT community we’re trying to stop suffering and today the judge perpetuated suffering.”
Brown said she is not sure yet how her legal team will proceed. “I think we’re all still kind of surprised that this is what the judge decided today. He could have done this in the summer when we had a hearing. In all the scenarios that we imagined of what would happen today, this was not one of them.”
Affirmations Executive Director Dave Garcia was in Ann Arbor where he had volunteered to serve as a witness for marrying couples in Washtenaw County. “The courthouse was packed, and outside the courthouse was packed and they were handing out these little tickets like plastic tickets like you would get at the Secretary of State but a little bit bigger, and these couples who’d been together for 55 plus years, and many of my friends that have been together 10 or 15 years, they all were holding on to these and there were 64 of them that were passed out. And all they needed was that, and to walk into the Deed’s office. Keith and Martin, the owners of the aut Bar, asked if I would be a witness, so everyone was getting their witnesses lined up and they were getting their little cards – and then it didn’t happen, again. And they were crying. And it was very very sad. But also to remind them that it’s going to happen. You know, we’re winning.”
There were about 15 couples lined up ready to get married at the Oakland County Clerk’s office, including Kat and Jennifer LaTosch who came dressed up and with their two sons, all set to celebrate a wedding.
“We are disappointed,” said Kat. Jennifer, an attorney, said, “I’m confident that we will eventually be able to marry. It will give our children added security they deserve and need. I’m hopeful that when this case goes to trial in February that marriage equality will become law in Michigan.”
Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU put Judge Friedman’s decision to go to trial in a larger context.
“While of course we would have loved to see a decision today in favor of marriage equality for LGBT people in Michigan, the judge’s decision to have an evidentiary hearing with experts from both sides, ultimately will strengthen a favorable marriage decision when it is appealed by the Attorney General. As we saw in the California marriage challenge, the State of Michigan in opposing marriage equality, will have a difficult time finding reputable experts who can support with scientific evidence why same-sex couples should be denied the right to adopt their children and the fundamental right to marriage,” Kaplan said.
LGBT activist Dustin Lance Black was in town doing speaking engagements, and he shared his insight on the issue. “Probably a lot of people were disappointed that marriages didn’t begin yesterday and today. But in my experience, we as a community really thrive and benefit from story-telling and truth-telling. It’s how we’re hurt every time our issues go up for a vote at the ballot box because the opposition can lie. And what this judge did – yes they delayed equality and justice – but he also said we’re about to shine a big bright light on the lies that the opposition tells. They have to come into court, and raise their right hand, and tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. And I would challenge all of you…to do what you can here to make sure this state knows what happens in that courtroom because I have faith that when we start telling the truth on this issue, we as a community win.”
Between now and Feb. 25, Nessel and her team have the challenging task of gathering expert witnesses to present at trial. The cost to bring in experts can be expensive, and a legal fund has been set up to help with the costs. To contribute towards the fight for same-sex marriage and second-parent adoption, visit the Nessel and Kessel Law Firm website at http://nesselandkessellaw.com/deboer-rowse-fund/.