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'A light at the end of the tunnel' for marriage equality in Michigan

A federal judge heard arguments Tuesday in a lawsuit challenging Michigan's same-sex marriage ban.
Same sex couple Jayne Rowse , green shirt, and April DeBoer hold hands during the rally outside the federal courthouse, Oct. 12, 2013, in Detroit, Mich.
Same sex couple Jayne Rowse , green shirt, and April DeBoer hold hands during the rally outside the federal courthouse, Oct. 12, 2013, in Detroit, Mich.

At a glance, the lives of April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse look very much the same as they did last March, when the couple first appeared in federal court to argue against Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage.

The two still share a home in Hazel Park, Mich., still work as nurses in Detroit-area hospitals, and still take care of their three adopted children: five-year-old Nolan, four-year-old Jacob, and four-year-old Ryanne.

But a closer look shows how much the couple's lives have changed in the last year of unprecedented gains for families like theirs--a year that has given them the kind of knowing confidence most plaintiffs would dream of ahead of their legal showdown with defenders of the state constitution. And that’s exactly the attitude Michigan officials saw in court Tuesday, the beginning of DeBoer and Rowse’s long-awaited trial in their quest for equality.

“We want to be recognized like everybody else,” said DeBoer to reporters outside of the courthouse Tuesday. “Nothing says family like the marriage license that says we're legally a family, and that's what we're hoping for. And we think we're going to get it.”

In her opening statement Tuesday, DeBoer and Rowse's attorney, Carole Stanyar, argued Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage was discriminatory and placed an unfair burden on gay parents. But the state countered that the law was approved by voters, who deserve respect from the court. 

"This case is about one thing: the will of the people," said Assistant Michigan Attorney General Kristin Heyse, as reported by Reuters. "This was not the whim of a few."

Upending the Wolverine State’s marriage law wasn’t always the goal for DeBoer and Rowse. The case originally started out as a challenge to the Michigan Adoption Code, which bars gay couples from jointly adopting, and does not allow for one partner to adopt the other’s child--an option available to parents in most states called “second-parent adoption.”

Under Michigan law, the state recognizes only DeBoer as parent to Ryanne, and Rowse as parent to Nolan and Jacob. Should something happen to one of the women, the other would have no legal rights to the children they have been raising together.

But when the couple sued the state in 2012 to be able to adopt each other’s children, something unexpected happened. U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman, a Reagan appointee, urged DeBoer and Rowse to take on the state’s 2004 voter-approved amendment banning same-sex marriage.

The move was unusual, yet eerily far-sighted. In a matter of months, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling striking down a key portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA,) and opening the floodgates for dozens of federal and state challenges to same-sex marriage bans across the country. No court has ruled against the argument of equality based on sexual orientation since.

“If Judge Friedman does not rule in favor of [DeBoer and Rowse,] he would be going against the tide of the whole country,” said Emily Dievendorf, managing director at Equality Michigan. “The support around LGBT rights increases so fast and across all demographics, and does not reverse--it’s a new state just about every six months.”

According to a recent poll conducted by Equality Michigan, 59% of voters said they believed the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. But that’s not to say DeBoer and Rowse won’t be met with fierce opposition over the course of their two-week trial.

Unlike attorneys general in Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, who have declined to defend their state marriage laws, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has been a staunch supporter of his state’s ban. And because Michigan’s marriage laws are so entwined with its adoption code, a bulk of the state’s defense will rest on the argument that same-sex marriage is damaging to children.

"Michigan supports natural procreation and recognizes that children benefit from being raised by parents of each sex who can then serve as role models of the sexes both individually and together in matrimony," says a brief filed by the state.

Putting this argument at the fore is somewhat unusual for a modern marriage equality suit. Most states choose to focus on something less controversial -- like the legitimate government interests of preserving traditions or protecting states from federal interference -- and leave parenting research to written briefs. But for the first time in years, Michigan’s hearing will feature dueling testimony about the impact of same-sex relationships on child-rearing.

Four social science researchers will be testifying in favor of Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban, according to the New York Times, and all of them had published new reports after attending meetings hosted by the Heritage Foundation in 2010. No one from the conservative think tank was available for an interview, though Ken McIntyre, who serves as special projects editor at the Heritage Foundation, told msnbc via email: “In general, our scholars hold that the best available social science research shows that children thrive most when raised by a married mother and father.”

Testifying on behalf of DeBoer and Rowse Tuesday, David Brodzinsky, an expert on child welfare, adoptions, and foster care, disputed that idea. 

"Children of gay and lesbian individuals show no discernible differences in outcomes," said Brodzinsky, as reported by Reuters. "The parenting qualities of gays and lesbians are no different from heterosexual couples."

The parents at the center of Tuesday’s hearing remain optimistic for what the trial may bring. Rowse, who underwent gallbladder surgery last week, was worried she would not be able to attend, but ended up rallying. Her illness served as a stark reminder of why they began this battle in the first place.

“Not only did I have to worry about her, but in the back of my mind, I had to worry about the, ‘What if...’” said DeBoer to msnbc, the day before the trial. “What if something went wrong, would I be able to keep my boys? That’s a stressful situation to have someone you love going under surgery, but then to have that in the back of your mind… It’s a horrible thing to think of.”

The prospect of married life is a more hopeful scenario to focus on, one that's starting to become more real for the couple of over 14 years. Though they said in an interview nearly a year ago with msnbc that they felt they were already married, now, said DeBoer, they’re starting to get excited about making it official.

“We struggled with the conversation about going to another state [to wed,]” said DeBoer. “As much as we wanted to be married, it wasn’t worth it when you didn’t have rights in your own state. For the longest time, there didn’t seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Now we feel like there is.”