April DeBoer, second from left, sits with her adopted daughter Ryanne, left, 3, and Jayne Rowse, fourth from left, and her adopted sons Jacob, 3, middle, and Nolan, 4, right, at their home in Hazel Park, Mich., in March, 2013.
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DETROIT — A trial involving two Detroit-area nurses who want to overturn Michigan’s ban on gay marriage opens today, 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.
Gay couples poised for a favorable ruling last fall had lined up for marriage 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 Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer 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 violates the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, which forbids states from treating people differently under the law. Rowse, 49, and DeBoer, 42, have lived together for eight years.
“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 2004 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 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.”