For ACLU of Michigan and Western Branch, the stories are what matters



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

One of the stories the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan Western Branch celebrated last Thursday concerned the long-awaited weddings of 48 couples in Muskegon, and the county clerk who made them possible.

For her role in speedily issuing licenses during a brief window for same-sex couples to marry due to Federal Court rulings on March 22, 2014, Nancy A. Waters (see photo page 2) was named the group’s Civil Libertarian of the Year.

Said ACLU of Michigan Deputy Director Rana Elmir, the evening’s keynote speaker, “I want to share a special thank-you to Nancy Waters for opening up the figurative doors to her heart and to her office. She showed us that love always wins.”

Unfortunately, there was a sad note in Nancy Waters’ own story, because she was not able to attend Thursday night due to a family emergency. She quickly asked Muskegon County Commissioner and former Muskegon Heights Mayor Rillastine Wilkins to accept on her behalf.

The award was given at Muskegon Community College in honor of Waters and because Mitch Dennison, Western Branch Chairperson, and other board members live or work in Muskegon.

One of the newer board members is Andy Wible, a philosophy instructor at Muskegon Community College. Wible introduced the Civil Libertarian Award, talked about Waters, and read a letter sent from her “co-conspirator” Bill Freeman, the Unitarian Universalist celebrant who presided over the marriages. Freeman, who has since moved to California, said that when the Appeals Court ruled later on that Saturday in favor of the stay requested by the state of Michigan, “I invited her to continue issuing licenses. I would have happily continued marrying the couples, but unfortunately Nancy Waters is one of those people who insist on following the laws. As far as I can tell that’s her only character flaw.”

While other West Michigan clerks were not prepared or not inclined to issue the licenses, speakers emphasized that Waters had spent a lot of time preparing so that the paperwork would be in order.

Another moving story was told at the reception partially in music.

When street musicians Gabe Novak and Christopher Waechter were separately prohibited from playing on the public sidewalks of Saugatuck, and Novak was arrested, the ACLU sued the city. Judge Robert Jonker entered a consent judgment that included Saugatuck allowing street performers without a permit, which city officials agreed to.

Waechter, a violist, effectively played a duet with himself, using a feedback machine to supply a steady pulse after Dennison declared, “This menace to society is going to play a little bit for you.” Waechter’s command of and love for the instrument was clear in his emotional and skillful performance.

As Elmir came to the podium, she commented, “That’s a tough act to follow. I would not have agreed to do this if I had known Chris was going to play right before me.”

Elmir proceeded to provoke some strong emotions herself as she shared more stories of people for whose rights the ACLU?has fought or is fighting.

“My mother always shared stories of her life in Lebanon, including horrific details of war, poverty, racism, sexism, and more importantly unwavering courage,” Elmir said. When asked why she put herself through those memories, her mother said that sharing stories was the best way to get people motivated to avoid repeating awful mistakes.

“So I’m going to weave a tapestry of stories,” Elmir continued.

She told of Glenna DeJong and Marsha Caspar, the first same-sex couple to marry in Michigan thanks to Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, one of the other three clerks who worked that Saturday to facilitate weddings. Even though the marriages were legal, the state for a time refused to acknowledge them, denying them such rights accorded spouses as medical power of attorney and adoption. “They’re unlikely activists,” Elmir said, but DeJong and Caspar fought for themselves and the over 300 other couples married that day. With the ACLU’s Jay Kaplan representing her, Caspar prevailed.

Elmir told the story of Tamesha Means, the woman who was refused service at Muskegon’s Mercy Hospital three times when she was having a miscarriage, who was featured in the Grand Rapids Legal News 6/13/2014. It is the policy of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that Catholic hospitals may not ever suggest medical care that would terminate a pregnancy, nor inform women of any alternatives that might result in such termination.

So the Mercy?Hospital employees gave Means no information at all. (In Muskegon, consolidation has eliminated the possibility of going to a non-Catholic hospital.) On her third visit, she was admitted because she went into labor, and ultimately miscarried. Means and the ACLU are in the process of suing the bishops over that policy.

Allison Ben’s story is also  disturbing. The Inkster Housing Commission started eviction proceedings against her because on several occasions, the father of her child entered her home and abused her physically. When Ben called the police, she fell into the housing commission’s category of people who cannot control their “guests,” and was regarded as disturbing the peace. The ACLU, along with the Fair Housing Center of Southeastern Michigan, sent a letter to the Inkster Housing Commission saying that their policy amounts to re-victimization and they risk being in violation of federal and Michigan law.

The ACLU has successfully sued to end such practices in Michigan in the past.

Another of the stories Elmir told was Milton Hall’s. The homeless Saginaw 49-year-old was a community activist in his youth, but mental illness overtook him in his mid-twenties. After an altercation with a convenience store worker in 2012, Hall was killed by a barrage of bullets (estimated at 46) from police officers who surrounded him, despite the fact that the only weapon he had was a small pen knife.

The ACLU is continuing to pursue redress of this injustice through the federal government, but so far there has been no action. “If citizens can’t trust the feds to protect them when local police kill unarmed citizens, as in the cases of Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and the list goes on and on and on... These have forced many civilians, and police, to begin reflecting on the need for change. But it appears more reflection, and action, are needed to guarantee that we won’t have another Milton Hall,” Elmir said.

The ACLU of Michigan Western Branch also plans a luncheon featuring LZ Granderson, writer and columnist for ESPN and commentator for CNN. on May 14. To register, visit secure/standing-together-justice-aclu-west-michigan-luncheon.