State Rep. Jason Morgan (D-Ann Arbor), April 13, 2023 | Laina G. Stebbins
When state Rep. Jason Morgan (D-Ann Arbor) and his fiancé, Jon Mallek, were deciding where to put down roots for their future family, one policy was a key factor – the protection of marriage rights for gay couples.
After deciding to remain in Morgan’s native Michigan, a question arose of whether or not the U.S. Supreme Court would overturn the precedent set by Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark 2015 case that made access to same-sex marriage the law of the land.
“I am really, really worried that at any point, the U.S. Supreme Court could decide that my rights are no longer protected,” Morgan said. “I love Michigan; it’s my home state. I grew up here. I want to live here forever.”
That trepidation is what motivated Morgan to embark on the ambitious pursuit of amending Michigan’s constitution and replacing every mention of marriage in the state’s legal code to be same-sex inclusive. A 52-bill package currently working its way through committee and spanning from HB 4764 to HB 4814 introduced by Morgan and several of his Democratic colleagues in the Michigan House would do just that.
Morgan said that upon taking on the challenge of finding each reference of gendered marriage, he was perplexed at the sheer frequency of the use of phrases like “husband and wife” in laws pertaining to everything from announcing a marriage to tax policies to filing for divorce.
“I have to admit that I am surprised at how many of our state laws reference the gender of a spouse,” Morgan said. “It seems like for efficiency’s sake, years ago, we could have simply said spouse and spouse. And, lo and behold, we have 50-plus state statutes that have to be updated, simply to change that outdated language.”
Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, said that removing gendered language from state law would mark an important step towards inclusivity for all Michiganders.
“Updating the code to gender-neutral terminology just shows Michiganders that regardless of your sexual orientation or gender identity, your partnership, your marriage is respected here in the state of Michigan,” Knott said. “It sends a message of inclusivity and that all are welcome, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Morgan and his colleagues have the numerical majority in the House to pass the package replacing gendered language, but will face an uphill battle to pass Joint Resolution F, the proposed constitutional amendment that would repeal Michigan’s 2004 ban on same-sex marriages and replace it with language codifying the protections of Obergefell.
Amending the state constitution requires a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers of the Legislature, a feat that will likely prove challenging with slim Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. That hasn’t deterred Morgan and other Democrats sponsoring the joint resolution, however, as the measure could become a ballot proposal if not passed by the Legislature.
I am really, really worried that at any point, the U.S. Supreme Court could decide that my rights are no longer protected. I love Michigan; it's my home state. I grew up here. I want to live here forever.
– State Rep. Jason Morgan (D-Ann Arbor)
Morgan said that watching the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade’s protections for abortion rights nationwide in 2022 was an alarming indication that other landmark civil rights cases could be next to go. He said that he hopes to preempt the process for same-sex marriage that Michigan underwent to codify abortion rights via Proposal 3 in 2022.
“I saw just how terrifying that was for so many of our residents who no longer felt that they were safe and protected by their government,” Morgan said. Fortunately, we were ready. We had the ballot initiative underway, and voters shouted loud and clear that they believe that these rights should be protected. But I want to make sure that we don’t have gay folks in our state go through that same thing.”
The one-year anniversary of the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling that allowed states to pursue bans on abortion was a sobering reminder for Morgan that a test of same-sex marriage may not survive the right-wing court.
“I feel like a lot of folks felt like Roe could never be overturned, because they just believed that the Supreme Court would uphold the integrity that they had for many years,” Morgan said. “Particularly on the anniversary [of the Dobbs decision], it is very clear to me that we cannot trust the US Supreme Court to uphold basic rights for our people.”
Knott said that the issue of protecting same-sex marriage in Michigan feels especially crucial in light of the June 30 Supreme Court ruling in which the plaintiff, a wedding website designer, won the right to deny service to LGBTQ+ couples.
“We watched last week as the court rulings, multiple of them, normalized prejudice and discrimination,” Knott said. “The outrageous and dangerous decisions that we witnessed as a community last week underscores that this is an important package of bills.”
During a time when state legislatures across the country are weighing anti-LGBTQ+ laws on topics ranging from gender-affirming healthcare to the banning of dressing in drag in public spaces, Morgan said he hopes his bills will make an example of Michigan as a legal and cultural haven for people whose home states may not be so accepting.
“If we want to grow Michigan’s population, we need to make sure that our laws reflect the inclusiveness that the governor and all of us have been shouting from the rooftops since we were elected in November,” Morgan said.
Morgan said that the push to strike gendered marital language from the state’s laws is only the beginning of what he hopes will be the removal of all discriminatory language from Michigan’s legal code, including outdated statutes on gender and race.
“I want to make sure that as I build a family in my home state with my partner, that we are protected and safe and never have to worry about our marriage or anyone else’s marriage being at risk,” Morgan said.
For now, fighting for equal rights is going hand-in-hand with wedding planning, since Morgan and Mallek decided Ann Arbor’s affirming atmosphere made for the best place to get married and begin a life together.
“We can invite all of our friends and family to a wedding and not have to worry about whether we’ll be safe or not in our community at that wedding,” Morgan said. “That is not the case for everyone across our state or across our country, and so that’s all that’s tied to this idea of removing every discriminatory law from Michigan’s books.”
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