DETROIT (AP) — Michigan's ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional, a federal judge declared Friday, striking down a law that was widely embraced by voters a decade ago in the latest in a series of similar decisions across the country.
But unlike cases in other states, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman did not suspend his decision while the Michigan attorney general pursues an appeal. At least three counties — Washtenaw, Oakland and Muskegon — said they would start issuing licenses Saturday unless a higher court intervenes.
Other counties plan to follow suit on Monday.
Friedman released his 31-page ruling exactly two weeks after a rare trial that mostly focused on the impact of same-sex parenting on children. The challenge was brought by two Detroit-area nurses originally seeking to overturn Michigan's ban on joint adoptions by gay couples.
The judge noted that supporters of same-sex marriage believe the Michigan ban was at least partly the result of animosity toward gays and lesbians.
"Many Michigan residents have religious convictions whose principles govern the conduct of their daily lives and inform their own viewpoints about marriage," Friedman said. "Nonetheless, these views cannot strip other citizens of the guarantees of equal protection under the law."
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia issue licenses for same-sex marriage. Since December, bans on gay marriage have been overturned in Texas, Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia, but appeals have put those cases on hold.
Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, asked a federal appeals court to freeze Friedman's decision and prevent same-sex couples from marrying while he appeals the case.
The decision was filed in Detroit shortly after 5 p.m., when most county clerk offices were closed and couldn't issue licenses.
"We'll be ready to go first thing Monday morning. We open at 8 a.m.," said Barb Byrum, the clerk in Ingham County, home of the state capital.
Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown said she's thrilled.
"It means I'm not forced to discriminate in my office," she said.
The women who brought the 2012 lawsuit, Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer, are raising three adopted children with special needs at their Hazel Park home. But they can't jointly adopt each other's children because that is tied exclusively to marriage in Michigan.
Attorney Dana Nessel read portions of the decision on live TV at the kitchen table in the DeBoer-Rowse home.
"It's unbelievable," DeBoer said. "We got our day in court. We won."
About an hour later, the couple got a standing ovation and cheers at Affirmations, a community center for gays and lesbians in Ferndale, north of Detroit. DeBoer said she and Rowse won't get married until the case comes to a close in the months — possibly years — ahead.
Rowse, 49, and DeBoer, 42, didn't testify, and the trial had nothing to do with their relationship. In fact, attorneys for the state told the judge that they are great parents.
Instead, the state urged the judge to respect the results of a 2004 election in which 59 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment that said marriage in Michigan can only be between a man and a woman. Conservative scholars also questioned the impact of same-sex parenting on children.
Friedman, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1988, wasn't moved.
"State defendants lost sight of what this case is truly about: people," the judge said. "No court record of this proceeding could ever fully convey the personal sacrifice of these two plaintiffs who seek to ensure that the state may no longer impair the rights of their children and the thousands of others now being raised by same-sex couples."
Experts testifying for Rowse and DeBoer said there were no differences between the children of same-sex couples and those raised by a man and woman. And the University of Texas took the extraordinary step of disavowing the testimony of sociology professor Mark Regnerus, who was a witness for Michigan.
Dave Murray, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, said the state has an "obligation" to defend what voters chose in 2004.
If a "court concludes the provision of the Michigan Constitution cannot be enforced, he'd respect those decisions and follow the rule of law," Murray said of Snyder.
Michigan's Roman Catholic leaders, led by Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron, said gays and lesbians should be "accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity." But the judge, they said, is wrongly redefining marriage.
"This decision ... mistakenly proposes that marriage is an emotional arrangement that can simply be redefined to accommodate the dictates of culture and the wants of adults," seven bishops said.
AP reporters Jeff Karoub and Corey Williams in Detroit, Mike Householder in Ferndale, Mich., David Eggert in Lansing, Mich., and Emma Fidel in Mason, Mich., contributed to this report.
Follow Ed White at http://twitter.com/edwhiteap