HELENA – The Montana Supreme Court on Monday rejected an “overly broad” request that gay couples be guaranteed the same benefits as married couples, but left the door open for advocates to modify their case and try again.
The plaintiffs promised to do so, declaring they are “on the right side of history” and will inevitably win.
The court wrote in Monday’s 4-3 decision Monday that a lower court was within its discretion when it earlier dismissed the request.
In that earlier decision, a Helena district court judge dismissed the six couples’ case last year after state prosecutors argued that spousal benefits are limited by definition to married couples. A voter-approved amendment in 2004 defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock based his ruling in part on the state’s marriage amendment, and said that an order to force state lawmakers to write new laws would violate the separation of powers.
The majority justices upheld that decision. The court wrote that the gay couples want the court to intervene “without identifying a specific statute or statutes that impose the discrimination they allege.”
But the high court also said the legal complaint can be changed and re-filed with the lower court if it specifically cites state laws that are unconstitutional.
“It is this Court’s opinion that plaintiffs should be given the opportunity, if they choose to take it, to amend the complaint and to refine and specify the general constitutional challenges they have proffered,” Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath wrote for the majority.
The advocates said the new legal filings would be coming.
“We are on the right side of history here. This is a discrimination case. In other civil rights cases people have not given up, and we won’t,” said James Goetz, an attorney for the couples. “There is just no question, and the court did not hold otherwise, that these statutes are discriminatory. If we have to go back step by step and prove it statute by statute, that is what we will do.”
He said “people continue to suffer discrimination as the courts move in their deliberative ways.”
The advocates argue the legal rights they seek would not be barred by the voter-approved definition of marriage since they are not seeking specifically the right to marry.
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One dissenting justice, however, noted the state is citing the marriage amendment in its legal arguments.
And Justice James Nelson, in a lengthy 109-page dissent, wrote that he thinks the marriage amendment itself unconstitutionally conflicts with fundamental rights. He said the marriage amendment was a religious-based attack meant to demean homosexuals.
“But future generations – indeed, most young people today – will not fear, much less honor, the sexual-orientation taboo,” Nelson wrote. “Indeed, a not-too-distant generation of Montanans will consign today’s decision, the marriage amendment, and the underlying intolerance to the dustbin of history and to the status of a meaningless, shameful, artifact.”
Among the rights the couples are asking for in the lawsuit filed in 2010:
• Inheritance rights, and the ability to make burial decisions and receive workers’ compensation death benefits.
• The right to file joint tax returns, claim spousal tax exemptions or take property tax benefits.
• The right to make health care decisions for a spouse when that person cannot.
• Legal protection in cases of separation and divorce, including children’s custody and support.
Social conservatives who oppose granting those rights, and who supported the marriage amendment, lauded the high court for rejecting the request.
“The people of Montana believed in traditional marriage when they passed the Montana marriage amendment, and they’re not willing to consider any laws that will weaken marriage,” said Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation and author of the marriage amendment.
The Montana attorney general’s office argued throughout the case that the plaintiffs need to cite specific laws they believe are unconstitutional.
“The majority opinion recognized that orderly resolution of the plaintiff’s claims would require consideration of specific statutes, as is the typical manner in which constitutional challenges to statues are resolved,” Assistant Attorney General Michael Black said in a statement.
The Montana ACLU, involved in the case from the start, said the Supreme Court decision leaves open a path to victory for the advocates. Plaintiffs in the case expressed optimism.
“We’re encouraged by the decision because the justices said that we could pursue the protections we are seeking,” said Mary Leslie, who was unable to apply for death benefits after a partner was killed. “Legal protection is essential, not just for our families, but for all same-sex couples. We won’t stop until every loving couple is treated fairly.”