April DeBoer never intended to be a legal pioneer, much less a public face of perhaps the most significant civil rights challenge to reach the Supreme Court in years. She and her partner just wanted to be able to adopt children as a couple.
But when their lawsuit challenging Michigan’s adoption code came to a federal district court in 2012, the judge shocked DeBoer and her partner, Jayne Rowse, telling them they should instead be contesting the state’s same-sex marriage ban. After much anguished discussion, the couple agreed, DeBoer recounted.
“By no means did we set out to be trailblazers,’’ said DeBoer, a nurse who along with Rowse has cared for numerous foster children with special needs. “Taking on the marriage ban seemed like a huge battle, and it still is, but the ban isn’t right. It harms families like ours, so we decided we needed to do it.’’
On Friday, DeBoer, Rowse and same-sex couples from three other states succeeded in putting the issue of marriage equality before the Supreme Court, which accepted their cases and will consider this spring whether the Constitution requires that same-sex couples be allowed to marry.
“We are honored,’’ DeBoer said. “It’s overwhelming.’’
The plaintiffs — from Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as Michigan — are women and men and come from diverse backgrounds. While the specific legal issues vary slightly by state, the couples are united in their belief that laws preventing them from living as that male-female couples can live must be changed.
“We are married, and we want Ohio to respect our marriage and our family,’’ said Joseph Vitale, one of the plaintiffs in the Ohio case, which centers on whether the state is required to recognize same-sex marriages lawfully performed in other states.
Opponents of same-sex marriage disagree, objecting on various grounds, including religion and the belief that the state’s interest in marriage is to promote bonds between men and women for the sake of procreation.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati in November upheld same-sex marriage restrictions in the four states, saying states have the autonomy to define marriage in the traditional way.
For Vitale, his relationship with his husband, Robert Talmas, 44, is as traditional as any couple’s could be.
Vitale, 46, said the couple was first brought together by the 1997 death of Diana, Princess of Wales. They were living in the New York area, had met through mutual friends and had gone with a group on vacation to Massachusetts. When the news of Diana’s death was announced, their friends went to a club. Vitale and Talmas, a human resources director, watched the news all night.
“We were devastated and we just connected,’’ Vitale recalled. “We kind of knew that we would spend the rest of our lives together.’’
After New York legalized same-sex marriage in 2011, the couple wed and began the process of adopting a child. They traveled to Ohio and were present when their son, Cooper, was born in 2013.
Returning to New York, where the adoption was finalized, Vitale and Talmas had an attorney seek a birth certificate in Ohio that listed them both as parents. The state refused, saying only one father could be listed because Ohio law required a marriage to be between a man and a woman.
“We were a married couple . . . and adopted him together, and all we wanted was both of our names on his birth certificate,’’ Vitale said. “It was devastating.’’
Along with other plaintiffs, the couple sued in federal district court and won their case before it was overturned by the appeals court.
The Tennessee case also focuses on recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states. Two of the plaintiffs are Valeria Tanco, a 32-year-old native of Argentina, and Sophy Jesty, 43, who was born in England but grew up in New York.
Both veterinarians, they met while working at Cornell University in 2009. Tanco walked into an elevator without looking and bumped into Jesty. Later that day, Jesty asked her out for a drink.
Recruited by the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, the couple wed in New York before they moved. “We knew we were moving to a state that wasn’t going to grant us protections we might otherwise have,’’ Tanco said.
When a Tennessee attorney, Regina Lambert, asked them to join a lawsuit seeking to force the state to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, “we were flattered,’’ Tanco said. “We really didn’t think it would get this far.’’
After the case was filed in 2013, a federal judge briefly forced Tennessee to recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages before the 6th Circuit stayed the decision. During that brief period, Tanco’s daughter, Emilia, was born. Jesty’s name is also on the birth certificate.
Jesty said Friday she is “incredibly happy” that the Supreme Court took the case. “It’s literally history-making,’’ she said.
In Michigan, DeBoer, 43 and Rowse, 50, also feel as though they’ve become a part of history. They had sued in 2012 only to challenge the state’s adoption code, which prevented them from adopting the special-needs children they had cared for as a couple.
DeBoer and Rowse, who have been dating for about 12 years, are licensed foster parents and have adopted two children each. When they tried to get their wills and other affairs in order, the pair learned that under Michigan law, if one of them died, the other wouldn’t necessarily get the other’s children.
They decided to challenge the adoption law and were shocked when Judge Bernard A. Friedman, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, told them to recast it as a marriage-equality case.