March 26, 2014 - Like Michigan's literal roads, currently ridden with potholes, the figurative road to history is not always a smooth one.
From left, Megan Hoeffel and Shannon D'Annunzio on March 22, shortly after they were legally married. Photo provided. (click for larger version)
Gay couples in the state are still encountering roadblocks to legal marriage, but at least two of these area couples bypassed the obstacles, although their future plans may be temporarily halted.
Willie and David Ollie Ray of Brandon Township were married on March 22 at the Oakland County Courthouse. Also saying their wedding vows to each other in the same mass ceremony were Megan Hoeffel, a 2004 Brandon High School graduate, and her new wife, Shannon D'Annunzio. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder says they, along with about 300 more couples of the same sex who wed on Saturday, are legally married. However, he also says the state won't recognize their unions and they aren't eligible for the benefits bestowed on legally married heterosexual couples because of a resulting appeal and stay of U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman's ruling that Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.
Willie and David called the stay "a technical difficulty" and were all smiles on Monday as they held up their marriage license with the official seal bearing their signatures, as well as those of Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown and Reverend Kim Riegel, both of whom presided over the ceremony.
"We've been through so much, this is minor," said Willie of the appeal by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, which has left their marriage "in limbo."
When Willie heard on the radio March 21 that Judge Friedman ruled that Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage, approved by voters in 2004, was unconstitutional, he picked up flowers for David and drove to the township home they share with their sons, Paris, 17, Dejhone, 15, and Billy, 8, to celebrate. The couple was united in a civil union in Vermont on June 20, 2002, but they have always wanted a legal marriage, particularly so both can be legally recognized as the boys' fathers. For now, David is legally the sole adoptive parent.
That night, while watching the 11 p.m. news, Willie learned that Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown planned to open the courthouse the next day for anyone wanting to apply for a marriage license. He woke David up and the two began a mad search for Willie's birth certificate, finally found at around 1 a.m. in old files in the basement.
They were up by 5:30 a.m. to get to the courthouse by 7:30 a.m., with about 12 couples already in line ahead of them, including Megan Hoeffel and Shannon D'Annunzio.
Unlike many of the couples at the courthouse who have been together for years awaiting this day, Megan and Shannon are a relatively new couple. They met last year at a comic convention, but quickly fell in love. In October, they found a house in Oxford and on the day they signed the papers to move into the house, Shannon told Megan how happy she was to start this new chapter in their life. Megan asked Shannon what the chapter was called. Shannon replied, "Shannon and Megan's first house." Megan responded, "How about, 'Shannon marries Megan?'"
As a shocked Shannon asked if Megan was proposing, Megan pulled out a ring and popped the question.
"She said yes a thousand times and gave a bunch of hugs and kisses," says Megan now. "We started making plans then for our wedding. Even if it wasn't legal, we would be married in our hearts, but we are grateful for the benefits that a legal marriage will entitle. They can tell us no, but we're still going to."
The "big" wedding for Shannon and Megan is still planned for next month, but as they, Willie and David, and dozens of others were standing in line at the courthouse, everyone there was elated to find that not only was the clerk dispensing marriage licenses, but she was offering to officiate ceremonies for all who wanted to get married that day.
And with that surprise, despite most couples not having their family and friends present, or in traditional wedding attire (Willie and David were wearing polo shirts, Megan and Shannon were in matching Power Rangers hoodies), the decision was clear— they would get married. Right then. For some couples it was a chance they had been awaiting for years. For all couples, it was something they knew might be a small window of opportunity (and for now, they are right).
"Once we found out we could get married, I immediately started crying, I was so happy, overwhelmed with emotion," said Megan. "I'm not even worried about the stay. I said, 'Lets do it, because tomorrow they can say no again.'"
Word spread like wildfire about the impending weddings and by 8:30 a.m., Willie said it exploded at the courthouse, with more and more couples arriving, Judge Friedman's ruling being read aloud, a man playing the Wedding March on an electric keyboard, everyone applauding and cheering each time a couple obtained their marriage license. Couples were asked if they wanted an individual ceremony or if they would be OK with a mass ceremony to move things along so everyone could get married. Most opted for the mass ceremony, which David said only lasted perhaps 15 minutes. A poem was read, vows and kisses and in many cases, rings exchanged (David couldn't get his ring, which he has worn constantly for almost 12 years now, off his finger).
"Everyone was crying," said Willie. "Everyone was like, 'we already have rings,' one couple had been together for 26 years. We held hands, it was great. We were coming down the hall waving our marriage license and everyone was clapping and screaming. It felt so good. Totally unplanned, but totally perfect."
David and Willie recall that their civil union was more personal because they wrote their own vows, but they plan to have another ceremony in September, with a backyard "hoedown" celebration. They were also hoping to get paperwork done immediately in which Willie would be recognized as the second legal adoptive parent of their sons, particularly before their eldest child, Paris, turns 18 in September, and is no longer eligible for adoption in Michigan.
"I've been his Dad for 12 years, I want that recognition," said Willie. "Do you think my children are better off in the foster care system or with us? We have a nice home, jobs, our kids will tell you they are happy. There is no difference between my family and the one two doors down that is heterosexual. There is a difference between our family and the family where there is a mother and father that are unable to take care of children. We are able to take care of our children and want them."
But in spite of Snyder saying the marriage is legal, the state's refusal to recognize that legal marriage while the stay is in effect will put the adoption in jeopardy.
Dr. Robert Sedler, a Wayne State University law professor and consultant on the case that went before Friedman, said the stay may continue until 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court could decide the issue. Last year, the nation's high court struck down as unconstitutional the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and woman.
"These people (those of the same sex who wed on Saturday in Michigan) are married," said Sedler. "At such point in time that it is finally decided Michigan's ban is unconstitutional, they will have to be recognized and won't have to go through another marriage ceremony," he said. "The State of Michigan and all the other places have made the same tired arguments that marriage is traditional and about having children, which it isn't. It is fair to say that once it has been reviewed by the Supreme Court, the state will have a hard time justifying their stance. Any state will... A ban on same sex marriage causes great harm to same sex parents and their children."
While voters in Michigan approved the same-sex marriage ban, nothing can override the U.S. Constitution, Sedler added, including voters.
"A state can not do something that violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment," he said. "You can put something on the ballot, the voters can adopt it, but it can be challenged as violate of the federal constitution."
"We got married, let it go, let's move on to the bigger picture," said Shannon on Monday.
Both she and Megan, as well as Willie and David, expressed their gratitude to all the county employees who worked a Saturday at the courthouse to ensure they could be married on what Megan called a great, historical day.
"I don't want to hear 'technically' anymore, that technically I'm not married," said Shannon. "I am married. Now we are united. This is my wife, not my roommate. Any chance to use that wife word, I'm doing it. We're going to go home and enjoy being married."
She turns to Megan.
"You were beautiful and it was the best day of my life," she said. "Nothing is going to top that, except maybe our children's births."
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville