California court overturns gay marriage ban. Any meaning for Michigan?

A California federal appeals court confirmed Tuesday what we already suspected: that Proposition 8 — the 2008 amendment to the California Constitution that eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry — is unconstitutional.

A three-judge panel consisting of Judges S. Reinhardt, M. Hawkins and N.R. Smith of the of U.S. 9th Circuit Court determined that “although the Constitution permits communities to enact most laws they believe to be desirable, it requires that there be at least a legitimate reason for the passage of a law that treats different classes of people differently. There was no such reason that Proposition 8 could have been enacted.”

Today’s ruling upholds a 2010 decision made by retired Federal District Court of the Northern District of California Judge Vaughn R. Walker, which stated that a ban on gay marriage violated the rights of gay and lesbian couples. Judge Walker’s ruling was subsequently overturned on the grounds that he should have disclosed his own same-sex relationship.

“Proposition 8 serves no purpose,” writes Judge Reinhardt in the ruling, “and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples.”

Proposition 8 originally passed in November 2008 by a vote of 52 percent to 48 percent, and was a heavy blow to those still celebrating the ruling only six months before by the California Supreme Court, which allowed same-sex couples to marry.

But what does it all mean for Michigan?

In 2004, voters amended the Michigan Constitution to deny both marriage and civil unions to gays and lesbians. That we will see a similar  challenge the 2004 amendment is hardly a given, especially because of the narrow grounds upon which the U.S. 9th Circuit Court came to their conclusion. The judges didn’t cite a constitutional right to marriage for same-sex couples, but rather determined that Prop. 8 specifically was in violation of the 14th Amendment.

“I don’t think that anything similar is likely to happen in Michigan in the near term, just because the facts of that particular case are very unique” says Denise Brogan-Kator, executive director of Equality Michigan, an LGBT advocacy group “Having said that, I think that this is a victory for every justice-minded, equality-minded, fair-minded person in America.”

Although today’s ruling specifically affects the residents of California, Brogan-Kator points out that it also allows same-sex Michiganders to get married there,* and will permit Michigan’s same-sex married couples (having tied the knot in states such as New York and Vermont) to have their marriages recognized there

“We continue to be a state that denies opportunity to our gay and transgender residents,” Brogan-Kator says. “Getting to something as just as this ruling today, here in Michigan, is a long way away, although we hope that it makes it to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Still, it’s important to recognize this victory as a step in the right direction for America in general.

“We’re very happy to see the court’s decision today,” says Brogan-Kator. “We think it was the only reasonable and just decision that the Court of Appeals could have come to.”

*Update: Actually, there'll be no new same-sex nuptials in California for at least the next two weeks. The ruling leaves in place, for at least that long, a stay on same-sex marriages in California. Predictably, proponents of same sex marriage are expected to seek a lifting of the stay, while Prop. 8 proponents will argue that it remain. Prop. 8 proponents are also expected to appeal the ruling. An appeal could be made to either a larger panel of the Ninth Circuit Court or the U.S. Supreme Court.
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