Michigan must recognize the marriages of more than 300 same-sex couples who were legally married in the state last year, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
U.S. District Court Judge Mark Goldsmith found that it is unconstitutional for the state to deny legal recognition of marriages performed in March after a federal judge overturned the state’s same-sex marriage ban.
“This Court concludes that the continued legal validity of an individual’s marital status in such circumstances is a fundamental right comprehended within the liberty protected under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” Goldsmith wrote. “Even though the court decision that required Michigan to allow same-sex couples to marry has now been reversed on appeal, the same-sex couples who married in Michigan during the brief period when such marriages were authorized acquired a status that state officials may not ignore absent some compelling interest — a constitutional hurdle that the defense does not even attempt to surmount. In these circumstances, what the state has joined together, it may not put asunder.”
On March 21, U.S. District Court Judge Bernard Friedman found a state constitutional amendment approved by Michigan voters in 2004 defining marriage as between a man and a woman in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The following day, four county clerks opened their offices, waived the traditional three-day waiting period and immediately issued marriage licenses to more than 300 same-sex couples before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals intervened and stayed the decision.
Gov. Rick Snyder (R) later said that while those marriages were performed legally, the decision by the 6th Circuit to halt same-sex marriages from continuing pending a final verdict in the case reinstated Michigan law prohibiting same-sex marriage. “In accordance with the law, the U.S. Circuit Court’s stay has the effect of suspending the benefits of marriage until further court rulings are issued on this matter,” Snyder said in a statement. “The couples with certificates of marriage from Michigan courthouses last Saturday were legally married and the marriage was valid when entered into. Because the stay brings Michigan law on this issue back into effect, the rights tied to these marriages are suspended until the stay is lifted or Judge Friedman’s decision is upheld on appeal.”
The decision striking down Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban was later reversed by the 6th Circuit, which broke with other federal appeals courts and found same-sex marriage bans in Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee were constitutional. All four cases have been petitioned to the Supreme Court, which will meet behind closed doors on Friday at the justices’ private conference to consider taking up the cases.
According to Goldsmith, who stayed his decision for 21 days to allow an appeal to the 6th Circuit, the case does not concern the right to marry, but the right to maintain marital status once it has been lawfully acquired under the laws of the state seeking to defeat it.
“Although no Supreme Court case has squarely addressed the question of maintaining one’s marital status, the compelling inference to be drawn from the cases addressing marriage and family is that the liberty interest being protected is the on-going relationship that the parties expect — or at least, fervently hope — will endure so long as they both live,” he wrote. “In other words, what is ‘fundamental’ is not simply the snapshot moment when vows are spoken, but the lifetime of committed intimacy that couples expect will follow.”