April 16, 2012
By Jacob Combs
In a bit of under-the-radar news from late last week, the Montana Supreme Court heard arguments Friday in the appeal of a case brought by six gay couples alleging that the state discriminates against them by denying them the rights that married couples are accorded. A judge in Helena dismissed the case a year ago, ruling that a state constitutional amendment prohibiting marriage equality made the case moot. Although the judge showed sympathy to the plaintiffs’ claims, he argued that the bestowal of benefits was best left to the legislative process.
James Goetz, the couples’ attorney, told Real Clear Politics that his clients are expressly not asking for the right to marry, but are rather seeking the ability to make the same decisions about health care and financial security that straight couples have. On Friday, Goetz argued that Judge Sherlock’s ruling did not address the constitutional questions that suit had raised, and told the justices that there was no need for it to order the Legislature into an action, making the case instead for a simple statement that the denial of equal benefits is an equal-protection violation.
To be sure, this is an extremely incremental lawsuit, and rightfully so–Montana’s constitutional ban, unfortunately, limits any state lawsuit for marriage equality. Nonetheless, the couples’ lawsuit is an important one because it raises an intriguing constitutional argument. To illustrate this point, consider the following exchange from Monday’s hearings. When asked by the justices whether allowing spousal benefits for gay couples would essentially undermine Montana’s marriage equality ban, Goetz argued that the amendment would still be meaningful because it would continue to keep the couples from marrying.
Article XIII, Section 7 of the Montana Constitution, which was enacted in 2004 by Initiative 96, reads simply, “Only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state.” The amendment makes no reference of rights or responsibilities, leaving it open to interpretation whether an equal protection claim could be made successfully by the six couples who filed the lawsuit.
The question, then, is whether Montana’s marriage amendment prohibits gay couples from entering into unions called “marriages,” or whether it prohibits those couples from enjoying any of the rights that married straight couples are provided. That may seem like a technical semantic argument, but it is a legitimate one. It could also have implications moving forward in other states: even though a Montana Supreme Court decision would by default be limited only to the state itself, it could be cited by other courts in determining whether marriage bans can stand alongside laws that provide gay couples equal rights.
With arguments before the Court complete, we must now wait the several months before a decision is handed down. A win in this case, though, while perhaps not as exciting at first glance as a full marriage win, could be a significant step forward.