Trial concludes in challenge to Michigan's gay marriage ban

Pro-traditional marriage supporters protest next to gay marriage supporters in front of the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Detroit, Michigan, Mar. 3, 2014.
Pro-traditional marriage supporters protest next to gay marriage supporters in front of the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Detroit, Michigan, Mar. 3, 2014.

Nine days of dueling testimony that covered religion, parenting and the constitutional right to marry came to an end on Friday, as U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman heard closing arguments in a case that could topple Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban.

“The right to marry is a fundamental right that should apply regardless of sexual orientation,” said Ken Mogill, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, as reported by the Associated Press on Friday. “The record established utterly no rational basis for Michigan’s stance on gay marriage.”

Voters enacted the Wolverine State’s constitutional amendment barring same-sex nuptials in 2004 with 54% approval. The Michigan Constitution also limits joint adoption to married couples, leaving gay parents with the added stress of having to choose who will have legal rights to the child or children they’re raising together, and who will be a legal stranger.

That’s exactly the predicament April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse sought to eradicate when they sued the state in 2012 for the right to adopt each other’s children. The couple, both nurses, have been together for over a decade and are raising their three adopted children --  five-year-old Nolan, four-year-old Jacob, and four-year-old Ryanne -- all born with special needs, as a family. But because of Michigan’s laws on marriage and adoption, 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 her children.

“It’s hard to imagine how the adult plaintiffs in this case could be contributing any more. They took in babies who were left behind,” said Carole Stanyar, another one of their attorneys, earlier in the trial. “These two women are heroes. And they’re not alone. All these families should be embraced. They should be supported. They should be celebrated.”

When the couple first appeared in court to challenge the adoption code, Judge Friedman -- a President Reagan appointee -- urged them to take on the same-sex marriage ban as well. Since then, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a central provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex nuptials, and opened the door to a flood of legal victories for the marriage equality movement. Seventeen states, plus the District of Columbia, now allow gay couples the freedom to marry, and federal judges have found similar bans unconstitutional in Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Texas.

Friedman said Friday he expected to make a decision within two weeks.

Hoping to end the courtroom winning streak for marriage equality, Michigan attorneys focused their argument not just on the government interests of preserving traditional marriage or protecting states from federal interference, but also on promoting the well-being of children. The state called several witnesses to testify on studies showing that children with heterosexual parents faced better odds at leading successful lives than children in different family arrangements.

“It’s about science and data,” said Kristin Heyse, an attorney for the state, in her closing arguments. “It’s about what’s best for the children of the state of Michigan.”

The validity of that science and data, however, was put through the wringer over the course of the two-week trial. One witness was dismissed before testifying because he was deemed unqualified as an expert. Another, Dr. Mark Regnerus, saw his testimony disowned by the sociology department at the University of Texas, his employer. And on the last day of cross-examination, the objectivity of a third witness for the state was called into question when he said gay people were going to hell.

“Is it accurate that you believe the consequence of engaging in homosexual acts is a separation from God and eternal damnation?” Professor Douglas Allen, a Canadian economist from Simon Fraser University, was asked, according to the Detroit Free Press. “In other words, they’re going to hell?”

“Without repentance, yes,” replied Allen, who maintained he was not biased against gay people.

The plaintiffs also presented witnesses and reports from the American Psychological Association showing no conclusive evidence to suggest that children of gay parents were somehow disadvantaged.

"The witnesses are at the top of their fields," said Mogill in his closing remarks Friday. "They all know what they are talking about and don't try to put a spin on it."