The atmosphere was joyous and celebratory after clerks in four counties took the unusual step of opening their offices on a Saturday morning, March 22, to issue licenses to same-sex couples. Federal District Court Judge Bernard Friedman had ruled the day before that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was an unconstitutional violation of the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Long lines of eager-to-be spouses, families, and friends crowded into state office buildings—and, in one case, into a UU church—with supporters offering cake and flowers, taking photos, and cheering through the morning. In every venue, UUs wore “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirts and brought banners. Some UU families brought their children to witness the historic moment.
A sense of urgency that morning proved well founded. The clerks’ offices stayed open only until 1:00 pm—and the Michigan attorney general had already appealed to overturn the judge’s decision. By Saturday afternoon, the federal appeals court stayed Friedman’s decision. Now, same-sex couples are again shut out as the appeals process continues.
Knowing their time was likely to be short, UUs and other marriage equality supporters sprang into action as soon as the judge’s decision was issued late Friday afternoon. “We knew if we didn’t get anything done over weekend, it was likely the stay would be issued on or before Monday morning,” says the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Landrum, minister of the UU Church of East Liberty in Clarklake, Mich., who performed two ceremonies in Ann Arbor.
UUs were central to the day. In fact, in Muskegon County, the county clerk issued 48 licenses from within the Harbor UU Congregation in Muskegon, and the Rev. Bill Freeman, a United Church of Christ minister who serves that congregation, performed over 30 weddings. In Ingham County, the clerk issued 57 wedding licenses, and the Rev. Kathryn Bert and two affiliated ministers from the UU Church of Greater Lansing in East Lansing performed a number of them.
In Oakland County, where the lawsuit challenging the state’s ban on same-sex marriage originated, 142 licenses were issued. Working together, County Clerk Lisa Brown and the Rev. Kimi Riegel of the Northwest UU Church in Southfield conducted several mass weddings of groups of 20 or 25 couples, marrying about 120 couples total.
In Ann Arbor, in Washtenaw County, the first wedding was performed by U.S. District Court Judge Judith Levy. Openly gay, Levy has a particular connection to the case, as she was a law clerk years ago for Judge Friedman, who struck down Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage. The Rev. Gail R. Geisenhainer, senior minister at the First UU Congregation of Ann Arbor, performed 10 marriage ceremonies in three hours, many for members of her congregation, with the Rev. Tom Schade, a retired UU minister, doing the paperwork for her so they could move faster. A total of 72 weddings took place in Ann Arbor before 20 clergy from a variety of faith traditions, including UUs, pagans, a rabbi, and more.
Riegel, who laughs at the memory of performing group weddings—a new experience for her, was deeply moved by the sense of love and support. “The images from that day will be in my head forever,” she says. “There was one couple, grandmothers, who got texts from their grandchildren saying, ‘Oh, now we can have a real wedding!’ There were people with canes, one couple where the men wore tuxedos, a couple of families where babies were imminent, and one woman carrying twins. For me, the capper on the whole day was seeing my son’s cello teacher and his partner, Jason and James, and their new baby, Norah. It was such a moment to be able to do this with them. The whole day was just amazing.”
As district courts continue to overturn state bans on same-sex marriage, legal experts expect the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the highly contentious matter in the near future. Supporters are increasingly optimistic. “Now we’ve got a stay, and who knows what the hell will happen,” says Riegel, “but we’re on the path, and there are over 300 families now legally recognized as married.”
Photograph (above): The Rev. Gail Geisenhainer talks with one same sex couple before their March 22 ceremony started (© 2014 Anne Savage Photography).
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