Marriage equality remains on ice in Michigan

Roland Smith (L) puts a ring on the finger of Paul Mattson (R) of Farmington Hills, MI., as the same-sex couple get married at the Oakland County Courthouse on March 22, 2014 in Pontiac, Mich.
Roland Smith (L) puts a ring on the finger of Paul Mattson (R) of Farmington Hills, MI., as the same-sex couple get married at the Oakland County Courthouse on March 22, 2014 in Pontiac, Mich.

It’s still winter for marriage equality in Michigan.

Though a federal judge struck down the state’s ban on same-sex nuptials last week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals moved to indefinitely freeze that ruling Tuesday while it takes more time to consider the suit. The three-judge panel ruled 2-1.

Earlier in the day, attorneys for both the plaintiffs and the state submitted briefs to the Sixth Circuit arguing their sides of the case. Lawyers challenging the ban urged the appeals court to lift a temporary stay issued over the weekend and allow same-sex marriages to resume, while the state argued for an extension of the hold pending appeal.

Tuesday’s decision comes four days after U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman ruled Friday that Michigan’s 2004 voter-approved amendment banning same-sex nuptials violated the Constitution’s guarantee to equal protection. He is the seventh federal judge to strike down all or part of a state’s same-sex marriage ban since the nation’s highest court gutted the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) last year, clearing the way for the U.S. government to begin recognizing same-sex marriages. Unlike most of his colleagues, however, Friedman did not immediately stay the effects of his ruling, which allowed a brief window for gay couples to wed in Michigan before the Sixth Circuit intervened.

Roughly 300 gay couples obtained marriage licenses from clerks in four counties on Saturday, but were forced to stop when the appellate court temporarily suspended Friedman’s decision. Tuesday’s ruling means the state’s ban on same-sex nuptials stays in effect for longer, marking a significant blow to marriage equality crusaders.

In an 18-page response to the state’s emergency motion for a stay, attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that the request was wrongly filed in the appellate court without first going through the district level, and that the state’s motion was “entirely lacking in merit.” Not only is the state likely to lose on appeal, read the brief, but granting a stay would cause the plaintiffs and all other gay families to “suffer palpable, irreparable harm.”

“Every day that people are denied their constitutional rights causes irreparable injuries to them, particularly in our state where [many] gay parents have no legal rights to their children,” said Dana Nessel, one of the attorneys challenging Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban, to msnbc. “By staying this case -- even if our motion to expedite is granted -- we’re talking about many months of families being vulnerable and unprotected by the laws of our state.”

Furthermore, argued Nessel and her team, “conflicting laws between states that recognize the right to same-sex marriage and those that do not create serious morale and administrative problems for employers with facilities in multiple states,” read the brief, “which then results in reduced business influx into the state and a ‘brain drain’ for Michigan, with qualified gay and lesbian professionals and their supporters eschewing or leaving the state.”

Michigan’s Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette asked the Sixth Circuit in a separate filing to continue its stay until the end of the work week, while his office considered asking the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene -- a move not without precedent. In Utah, the high court halted same-sex nuptials 17 days (and over 1,000 weddings) after a federal judge similarly upended that state’s marriage laws.

“The Supreme Court has already determined that a stay pending appeal is warranted when a district court strikes down a state constitutional amendment defining marriage,” wrote Schuette in his appeal. The filing also added that the state “did make a motion in the first instance in the district court,” a claim Nessel strongly disputes.

The case was filed on behalf of April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, two women barred from adopting each other’s children because they could not wed. In addition to prohibiting gay couples from marrying, Michigan law also prevents them from jointly adopting children - a privilege given only to married, heterosexual couples.

Judge Friedman’s decision followed nine days of heated testimony that centered on whether or not gay people could parent as well as their straight counterparts.

Meanwhile, gay couples who were able to wed in Michigan the one day it was allowed remain in legal limbo with no clear indication yet as to whether their marriages will be acknowledged. In January, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the federal government would honor the 1,300 same-sex marriages performed in Utah, even though the state would not. Holder has yet to make the same assurance to Michigan couples, but his spokeswoman said Monday that the Justice Department was “closely monitoring the situation.”

Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has also left gay couples in the dark as to where their marriages stand with the state government. On Sunday, Snyder’s spokeswoman told the Associated Press that the governor would not be “weighing in on these issues at this point.” A day later, he sidestepped questions on the matter while speaking in New York at a Manhattan Institute for Policy Research forum. Political analysts note that Snyder’s silence has a lot to do with his bid for re-election this year, which will require votes from Independents who tend to poll more favorably toward same-sex marriage than Republicans.

Despite this lack of clarity, however, Michigan couples like Cass Varner and Sheri Folta, who were able to marry on Saturday after being together for 12 years, are trying to stay optimistic.

“We now have the same legal paperwork that straight couples have when they file for marriage licenses,” said Varner, spokeswoman for Affirmations, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender advocacy organization, to msnbc before the Sixth Circuit's decision came down.

“There’s no one who can tell me that the paperwork in front of me doesn’t exist,” she continued. “How can you take a marriage away from somebody?”