Lawyers delivered opening statements Tuesday in a trial that challenges a 2004 constitutional amendment that recognizes marriage only between a man and a woman. April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse of suburban Detroit say the amendment violates their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Federal Judge Bernard Friedman has set aside two weeks to hear testimony from experts in the areas of economics, marriage and child-rearing.
Michigan Assistant Attorney General Kristin Heyse says it would be a mistake to overturn the will of the people. She says it wasn't a "whim of the few."
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Two Detroit-area nurses walked hand-in-hand through a line of protesters Tuesday for a trial that could overturn Michigan's ban on gay marriage, the latest in a series of marriage-equality challenges across the country.
The issue: Is there a legitimate state interest in restricting marriage to a man and a woman?
Federal judges in recent weeks have struck down gay marriage bans in Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia without trials. At least 17 states and the District of Columbia now allow marriage by same-sex couples.
"Nothing says family like a marriage license," April DeBoer told reporters before entering the Detroit federal courthouse with Jayne Rowse, her partner of eight years.
They walked past more than a dozen people who marched quietly on the sidewalk with signs declaring, "We support traditional marriage. One man, one woman."
Gay couples poised for a favorable ruling last fall had lined up for licenses at county offices across Michigan, only to be stunned when U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman said he wanted to hear testimony from experts.
"The court may not simply adopt the findings of fact and conclusions of law previously issued in other proceedings," he said.
Two weeks have been set aside for testimony.
The case began in 2012 when nurses Rowse, 49, and DeBoer, 42, of Hazel Park sued to try to upset a Michigan law that bars them from adopting each other's children. But the case became even more significant when Friedman invited them to add the same-sex marriage ban to their lawsuit.
They argue that Michigan's constitutional amendment, approved by voters in 2004, violates the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause, which forbids states from treating people differently under the law.
"If marriage is a fundamental right, then logic and emerging Supreme Court precedent dictate that the legitimacy of two adults' love for one another is the same in the eyes of the law regardless of sexual orientation," attorneys for the couple said in a court filing last fall.
The state attorney general's office, meanwhile, is defending the election result.
"There is no dispute that there is a fundamental right to marry. But there is no fundamental right to marry a person of the same sex," the state said.
Friedman said the case required a full-blown trial with testimony from economists and other scholars.
"We've seen different approaches by different courts. ... I don't think you need to hear extensive evidence to determine that these laws violate basic rights of equality," said Jennifer Levi of Western New England University law school in Springfield, Mass., who worked on a lawsuit that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in that state in 2004.
Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas, is among the state's witnesses. In 2012, he published a study in an academic journal, saying young adults with a parent who had a same-sex relationship were more likely to experience unemployment and other social woes. He later acknowledged that his study didn't look at children raised by stable same-sex couples.
Another witness is scholar Sherif Girgis, author of a 2012 book, "What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense." Attorneys for DeBoer and Rowse are asking the judge to block their testimony as irrelevant.
On Monday, more than 30 pastors from Baptist churches and conservative Christian congregations held a news conference to declare their support for the ban. They said family stability and the Bible demand marriage only between a man and a woman.
"The fight is on," said the Rev. Roland Caldwell of Burnette Inspirational Ministries in Detroit. "Don't tell me I can go to the polls and then the next day tell me I don't know what I'm doing."
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