A federal judge in Michigan could rule as soon as Thursday on a challenge to the state's ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions. The challenge comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear two cases dealing with gay marriage later this month.
In the Michigan case, a lesbian couple sued not because they want to be married, but because they want to be parents.
Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer have been together 13 years. For all practical purposes, they consider themselves married to each other. Rowse says they would like to make it official with a wedding in one of the nine states that allows same-sex marriages.
"We were looking at going to Washington or New York to get married," she says.
But planning that with three young kids is a challenge. Jacob and Ryanne are both 3 years old; Nolan is 4.
Jacob came into the household as a foster child. As foster parents, Rowse and DeBoer shared legal guardianship of Jacob. When they decided to adopt the boy, they faced the same decision they'd faced with the two other children: which of them would be the legal parent. They chose Rowse, who is also Nolan's legal mother. That meant DeBoer actually lost legal rights she had as a foster parent.
"I lose the right to make medical decisions for my boys," DeBoer says. "I can't enroll my boys in school. I am on an emergency card at school — I am listed as just an emergency contact person. I am not a parent. I am nothing."
If Rowse were to die, DeBoer would have to go to court to try to adopt the two boys.
So Rowse and DeBoer sued Michigan in federal court. Current law allows heterosexual married couples to adopt children. It allows individuals to adopt children. But it specifically bans same-sex couples from adopting kids.
Rowse, DeBoer and their lawyers say they were shocked when the federal judge in their case invited them to expand their lawsuit to challenge the state's ban on same-sex marriage.
"He did not order us to amend the complaint, but he certainly urged us to do so," says Dana Nessel, one of the attorneys working for Rowse and DeBoer. "It injures so many families in Michigan, and so many people are hurt by these laws, and so we felt compelled to do something about it and we did. So here we are now."
Michigan has some of the most restrictive laws in the country dealing with same-sex relationships. Michigan voters adopted an amendment to the state constitution in 2004 that prohibits recognizing same-sex marriages or civil unions or in any way treating same-sex couples as if they're married.
Joy Yearout, the spokeswoman for Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is defending the amendment, says changing the law should be a decision made by the state Legislature and by Michigan voters.
"The attorney general is the people's attorney, and his priority and responsibility is to defend laws that are put in place by the elected Legislature and also constitutional amendments that are approved by the people," Yearout says.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in late March in two unrelated gay marriage cases — one challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, and the other challenging California's ban on gay marriage.
Michigan's case is a little different from those two because the state's marriage ban and adoption laws are so restrictive.
Rowse and DeBoer say they'll be happy if the judge says gay and lesbian couples can marry in Michigan. But mostly, they want the judge to say they can both be the parents of all their children in the eyes of the law.
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