HELENA – Although two U.S. Supreme Court decisions Wednesday do not directly affect Montana’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriages, both sides in the debate here cited the rulings as supporting their respective positions.
The Supreme Court struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. It ruled that same-sex couples who have been legally married are entitled to receive certain federal tax, health and pension benefits, among others.
In its other decision, the court refused to hear a case from California, a move that will lead to resumption of same-sex marriages there.
Montana voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2004 that defined a marriage as being between a man and a woman.
“Neither decision changes the fact that same-sex couples are not allowed to marry in Montana,” said Niki Zupanic, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana.
Six gay couples, assisted by ACLU of Montana, have a pending lawsuit against the state seeking the protection of state-recognized domestic partnerships. Attorneys for these couples soon will be updating their complaint in state court to provide more specific details about which laws they believe are discriminatory, Zupanic said.
Any same-sex couples who have been married in another state and who are living in Montana will benefit from one of the rulings, she said. Now their marriages are recognized by the federal government, which Zupanic called “a huge, huge win.”
The court decision Wednesday also leaves the door open for continuing to challenge the fairness of same-sex marriage bans, Zupanic said.
“I think it’s yet another indication that this issue is only moving in one direction, whether it is public opinion or legal decisions like this one or legislative victories like Montana repealing our anti-sodomy law last session,” Zupanic said.
Jamee Greer, organizing director for the Montana Human Rights Network, praised the court rulings as “significant” because they expand access to basic protections to more people, but not all gay people. Full equality won’t come overnight, he said.
“We still live in a state that refuses to provide real legal protections in the workplace or housing to members of the lesbian, gay, bi(sexual) and transgender community,” Greer said.”We’ll keep our sleeves rolled up because we have a lot of work to do, but news like today’s gives us fuel and strength to continue moving towards full equality for all.”
A leading Montana opponent of same-sex marriage hailed the Supreme Court rulings for a different reason.
“We’re actually pleased with the decisions,” said Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation. “The bottom line is we won. Nothing in today’s decision will affect the Montana marriage amendment or the state of marriage in Montana.”
Top Democrats praised the rulings.
“In the United States of America, no one should be treated as a second-class citizen simply because of who they choose to love,” said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said, “The Supreme Court today made the right decision. The federal government has no place telling Americans who they can love and who they can marry.”
Gov. Steve Bullock and Lt. Gov. John Walsh issued a joint statement through spokesman Kevin O’Brien. It said they “are encouraged by today’s decision, as they believe that Montanans who are in committed relationships should be able to live together free from discrimination.”
However, Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said he was disappointed.
“Marriage, as the union of one man and one woman, matters for our children, and I remain a strong believer in defending the family,” Daines said. “While I do not agree with the court’s ruling concerning the application of federal benefits, I am encouraged that the court did not rule against states’ rights, ensuring that the voice of the people, not a ruling from a court, is the driving force behind marriage laws in Montana and the other states.”