DETROIT -- An attorney for two women opposing Michigan's ban on gay marriage urged a judge Tuesday to halt the treatment of same-sex couples as "second-class citizens," the latest in a series of marriage-equality challenges across the country.
Lawyers delivered opening statements in a trial that targets a 2004 state constitutional amendment that recognizes marriage only between a man and a woman. Two Detroit-area nurses, April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, claim the amendment violates their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The issue: Is there a legitimate state interest in restricting marriage to a man and a woman?
Federal judges in recent weeks have struck down gay marriage bans in Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia. At least 17 states and the District of Columbia now allow marriage by same-sex couples. The Michigan trial, which could last two weeks, will have testimony from experts in areas of economics, marriage and child-rearing.
"Nothing says family like a marriage license," DeBoer told reporters before entering the Detroit federal courthouse hand-in-hand with Rowse, her partner of eight years.
They walked past more than a dozen people who marched quietly on the sidewalk with signs declaring, "We support traditional marriage. One man, one woman."
Their attorney, Carole Stanyar, said she would present evidence to show there's no rational basis to single out gays and lesbians who want to marry - a key legal standard in the case.
"We would like this to be the last trial in America where same-sex parents will have to defend themselves," she told U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman.
She urged him at the end of trial to strike down Michigan's law and declare "there are no second-class citizens in this country."
The case began in 2012 when Rowse, 49, and DeBoer, 42, of Hazel Park sued to try to upset a law that bars them from jointly adopting each other's children. But the case became even more significant when Friedman invited them to add the same-sex marriage ban to their lawsuit since adoption law for couples is tied to marriage.
The ban was approved by 59 percent of voters in 2004. In her opening remarks, state Assistant Attorney General Kristin Heyse stressed that the burden is on DeBoer and Rowse to show the amendment is "irrational" under all possible reasons.
"That's a very high bar, your honor, and one plaintiffs can't meet," Heyse said.
She noted that the amendment was widely embraced by voters - "not a whim of the few."
It is the first U.S. trial on a gay-marriage ban since a trial in California in 2010, said Dana Nessel, co-counsel for DeBoer and Rowse. Most legal challenges in other states have been decided in other ways.
"We've seen different approaches by different courts. ... I don't think you need to hear extensive evidence to determine that these laws violate basic rights of equality," said Jennifer Levi of Western New England University law school in Springfield, Mass., who worked on a lawsuit that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in that state in 2004.
Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas, is among the state's witnesses. In 2012, he published a study in an academic journal, saying young adults with a parent who had a same-sex relationship were more likely to experience unemployment and other social woes. He later acknowledged that his study didn't look at children raised by stable same-sex couples.
Another witness is scholar Sherif Girgis, author of a 2012 book, "What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense." Attorneys for DeBoer and Rowse are asking the judge to block their testimony as irrelevant.
On Monday, more than 30 pastors from Baptist churches and conservative Christian congregations held a news conference to declare their support for the Michigan ban. They said family stability and the Bible demand marriage only between a man and a woman.