By Bernie Woodall
DETROIT (Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge struck down Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage on Friday as a violation of equal protection rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution in the latest in a series of court rulings across the nation to allow gay couples to wed.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette filed an immediate request to put the decision on hold pending an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
The ban, voted into law in 2004 as a state constitutional amendment, "does not advance any conceivable legitimate state interest" and discriminates against same-sex couples, Judge Bernard Friedman found in a 31-page ruling.
The challenge to Michigan's law was brought by a lesbian couple who live in the Detroit suburb of Hazel Park and had sought to jointly adopt each other's children but were denied that right under Michigan law.
The couple, April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, challenged both the ban on same-sex marriage and state adoption law. DeBoer told a news conference that she and Rowse would not marry right away because of the possibility the decision could be overturned.
"We are going to get married when we know we can stay married," DeBoer said, adding that they hugged, screamed and cried when their attorney called them about the decision. "We did this for the protection of our children."
Friday's ruling followed a nine-day trial and was in line with similar recent rulings by a series of federal judges who have found bans on gay marriage unconstitutional in Texas, Utah and other states. Those rulings have been put on hold pending appeals.
Lawyers seeking a stay of the ruling on behalf of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Schuette said one was needed to avoid confusion and maintain the status quo while appellate courts decide how Michigan and other states may define marriage.
"Given the monumental impact the district court's order would have on the institution of marriage in Michigan, especially amidst a national debate on the issue, a stay should be considered immediately," Schuette said in court papers.
Even as Schuette was seeking an emergency order to stay Friedman's ruling, county clerks around Michigan were preparing to issue marriage licenses as early as Monday morning if the ruling is not put on hold.
"I knew we'd see this day, but it was a long time coming," said Susan Horowitz, publisher of Between the Lines, a gay advocacy publication in Michigan.
Horowitz said she planned to marry her long-time partner on Monday in Oakland County, which includes Detroit suburbs. They were married in Ontario in 2005, but want to marry in her home state, she said.
Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes gay marriage, urged the appeals court to stop the decision from taking effect.
"Activist federal judges are waging an all-out assault on marriage, issuing rulings to redefine this foundational institution in violation of U.S. Supreme Court precedent and the rule of law," Brown said in a statement.
Barely a decade ago no U.S. states permitted gays to marry. Support has surged since Massachusetts became the first state to make same-sex marriage legal, and 17 states plus the District of Columbia now allow same-sex nuptials. That number would be substantially increased if a series of recent court decisions are upheld.
Momentum has grown since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that legally married same-sex couples are eligible for federal benefits in a decision that struck down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
Gay rights advocates also have filed lawsuits challenging bans in Arizona, Indiana, Wisconsin, Wyoming and other states.
(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Detroit and David Bailey in Minneapolis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Andrew Hay, Sharon Bernstein and Lisa Shumaker)