Friday, March 28, 2014

Michigan moves forward on marriage equality

The entire state of Michigan stood in tension during the first two weeks of March. The tension hung on the outcome of a trial and week-long deliberation regarding the constitutionality of the state ban on same-gender marriage. Two women, life partners who between them have adopted three children with disabilities, filed the suitHowever, due to state law they are unable to adopt one another’s childrenInitially they intended to overturn the ruling that prevented partner benefits for same-gender couples. That case failed. This caseto overturn the 2004 amendment against same-gender marriage, was stronger. Lawyers for the couple presented solid and compelling testimony that children who are raised in households with same-gender parents are just as healthy and capable as children raised by heterosexual couples.

During the trial, local news channels interviewed Christians who supported 2004 amendment to the state constitution (Article One section 25) defining marriage as between one man and one woman. In response a number of Christians (including clergy who support marriage equality) renewed their effort to make public appearances at the marches taking place outside the courthouseThe Rt. Rev. Wendell Gibbs, Jr., Bishop of the Diocese of Michigan, published a statement in the Detroit Free Press on March 19, 2014 which said: "I stand in support of marriage equality and pray that our justice system will work to break down the walls of segregation, promote the humanity of all and calm our irrational fears."

Voters in Michigan passed the 2004 referendum amending the constitution. Ten years later lawyers for the state argued that federal courts should not overturn a policy adopted by the public referendum. Rather, they said, Michigan voters should decide if change was needed. 

Anticipation mounted as the trial drew to an end. No one knew how the judge, appointed by Ronald Reagan, would rule. A week after the close of the trial, just after 5pm on Friday, March 21, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman published his decision in a thirty-one page document striking down the state of Michigan ban on same-gender marriage. Responding to the lawyers for the state, Judge Friedman ruled that state authority "cannot trump federal constitutional limitations."

Shortly thereafter, the bishops of the four dioceses in the state of Michigan issued a statement in support of the ruling:
"As Christians and leaders in the Episcopal Church, we applaud Judge Friedman's decision to overturn Michigan's ban on equal marriage as a step on the right side of history,"
As the case of DeBoer v. Snyder continues to work its way through our judicial system, it is our hope that future judges will continue to find that the denial of marriage to same-gender couples is a denial of human dignity and a denial of rights under the law. We look forward in hopeful anticipation to the day when we can recognize all faithful and covenant relationships between any two people regardless of sex, both within the Church and within our society."

Thanks be to God,

The Rt. Rev. Todd Ousley
Bishop - Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Michigan

The Rt. Rev. Wendell N. Gibbs, Jr.
Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Michigan

The Rt. Rev. Rayford Ray
Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan

The Rt. Rev. Whayne M. Hougland, Jr.
Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Western Michigan

Bishop Gibbs has given permission for clergy in the Diocese of Michigan to use the 2012 General Convention approved liturgy "I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing". While not marriage vows, this blessing is currently available to be used to bless committed same gendered relationships in the Diocese of Michigan. Clergy must notify the Bishop and receive the approval of the Vestry in order to use the liturgy.

Following Judge Friedman’s ruling county clerks in Michigan initially stated that they would begin issuing marriage licenses on Monday. However a few hours later four counties announced that they would open on Saturday, March 22 for a special issuing of licenses. The county clerks also decided to waive the normal three day waiting period between issuing the license and a wedding ceremony. Thus the first couples were married shortly after 8am on March 22. The county clerk offices remained open until 1pm. According to the New York Times, on Saturday, March 22, three hundred couples were reported to have been married among the four counties that issued licenses and performed ceremonies. Sadly, by the end of Saturday the sixth circuit court, responding to a request by the Michigan State’s Attorney, issued a stay until Wednesday (March 26) on all licenses and marriages for same gendered couples.

Nonetheless there is hope. The attorney for the couple that won the suit said that the judge’s thirty one page judgment was strong. Recent polls indicate that a majority of Michigan residents now support marriage equality. On March 28, Attorney General, Eric Holder released a statement saying in part, “I have determined that the same-sex marriages performed last Saturday in Michigan will be recognized by the federal government. These families will be eligible for all relevant federal benefits on the same terms as other same-sex marriages." Amazingly, in a week’s time it now seems possible that Michigan will become one more state to honor marriage rights for all people. Now we wait with the hope that marriage equality will become the law in Michigan and marriages can be fully honored and celebrated by all people.

The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski is the Rector of Christ Church: Dearborn in the Diocese of Michigan, and Co-Convenor of the Episcopal Women’s Caucus

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