For April DeBoer & Jayne Rowse, the Fight for Marriage Equality Began on One Snowy Night in 2011

In Media Mentions by Chris Kessel

Though the constitutional challenge to the same-sex marriage bans in our nation’s Sixth Circuit only began making the news last year, for April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse the fight began in 2011. The night was dark, and snowy. The road was rural. DeBoer, Rowse, and their three young children found themselves staring at oncoming headlights… in their lane. All five of their lives could have been turned upside down in an instant.

“At the last second, he swerved off the road and veered into a field,” DeBoer recalled. “I don’t think Jayne and I would have survived the impact. It was that moment, that realization, that we needed to get things in order.”

The next day, the task seemed simple enough: They would have wills drawn up, and assign custody of their children. But, as the women soon learned, the task would be anything but simple. As a lesbian couple living in the state of Michigan, DeBoer and Rowse could be granted no legal claim over the other’s adopted child[ren]. (Michigan law prohibits unmarried couples from adopting jointly, and a single parent adopted so each of DeBoer and Rowse’s children.)

“It was scary,” DeBoer said. “All along we thought we could protect our children, and we couldn’t.”

DeBoer and Rowse, who met through mutual friends in 1999, now have four children: Six-year-old Nolan and five-year-old Jacob legally belong only to Rowse, while four-year-old Ryanne and two-year-old Rylee are, in the eyes of the law, only DeBoer’s. But ask any member of this family, and they’ll tell you together, they belong to, and with every one. None could imagine differently.

Their fight for marriage equality began in 2011.

On that night in 2011, and in the days that followed, DeBoer and Rowse came to know that their lives could be turned upside down in an instant. Their family could be torn apart, and there was nothing that could be done about it: Unless.

Unless they filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the adoption laws in the state of Michigan, which they did at Nessel & Kessel attorney Dana Nessel’s urging. But a year later, in United States District Court Judge Bernard A. Friedman’s courtroom, the whole scope of their endeavor shifted.

“We felt the judge’s implication was clear — either amend the proceedings to challenge the marriage ban, or the entire case could be dismissed,” Nessel said. “April and Jayne, as much as they wanted to get married and adopt their kids, never set out to challenge the marriage ban.”

The trial last two weeks, and Judge Friedman ruled in their favor, but DeBoer and Rowse’s story doesn’t end there. It’s only just begun. Though 300 couples were married during the time between Friedman’s ruling, and when the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his ruling in November, our clients were not among them. They made the tough decision to wait, to wait until the law was clear, to wait until every couple in Michigan had the right to marry.

But now it seems they won’t have to wait long.

“I think that’s just going to be overwhelming, seeing the justices,” Rowse said. “We’re optimistic and hopeful that they’re going to be on the right side of history.”