MTPR

Federal Judge Strikes Down Montana Same Sex Marriage Ban

Nov 19, 2014

Credit Josh Burnham

A federal judge today struck down Montana’s ban on gay marriage. Attorney General Tim Fox says he’ll appeal.

Judge Brian Morris in Great Falls ruled that Montana’s law violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

The law was challenged by four couples represented by the ACLU of Montana.

The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Montana, in September ruled similar gay marriage bans in Idaho and Nevada unconstitutional. But conflicting decisions remain in other federal courts, and the U.S. Supreme court has not issued a final word.

In Wednesday's ruling, Judge Morris wrote, "Montana’s laws that ban same-sex marriage impose a 'disfavored legal status' on same-sex couples. The time has come for Montana to follow all the other states within the Ninth Circuit and recognize that laws that ban same-sex marriage violate the constitutional right of same-sex couples to equal protection of the laws."

Tim Fox, Montana's Attorney General says his office will appeal the decision. He says it’s his sworn duty to uphold and defend Montana’s constitution until no further review or appeal is possible.

Governor Steve Bullock hailed the judge’s decision today, and says he appreciates that enough Montanans voted to for a same sex marriage ban to amend the state constitution in 2004.

"I also appreciate that we’re a state that, I think, cares for our neighbors, our friends, certainly.  We’re the 34th state where federal judges of all stripes have looked at this and said this is a constitutional human rights issue," said Bullock.

The ACLU of Montana says it will hold celebrations on Friday morning at the county courthouses in Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Great Falls, Helena and Missoula.

Sue Hawthorne, one of the plaintiffs in Montana’s gay marriage lawsuit, says she was totally caught off guard when the news broke:

"My sister and I were out shopping and my phone was just blowing up. I didn’t look at until a friend of mine said you need to call me ASAP. And then I knew something big was happening.”

Federal judge Brian Morris had just overturned Montana’s law defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Hawthorne and Adel Johnson, both from Helena, got married several months ago in Washington state, but Morris’ ruling means they are now legally married in their home state:

“We’re very excited that our marriage will be recognized, that we’re not a second class citizen, that we have the same rights and equal protection as heterosexual couples do.”

Hawthorne and her wife plan to be on hand Thursday morning when the American Civil Liberties Union holds a celebration at the Helena County Clerk’s office for same sex couples who want to get marriage licenses.

Reaction to the ruling from elected officials fell along party lines. 

Senator Jon Tester released a statement saying, “I applaud today’s ruling. It aligns our laws with our values and is a big step forward for our state. Denying same-sex couples the right to marry denies them happiness and equal protection under the law.”

The Montana Family Foundation President Jeff Laszloffy released a statement criticizing the decision. "I am heartbroken for the people of Montana who have had the redefinition of marriage forced on them by an out-of-control federal judiciary. This fundamentally undermines the right of the people to protect natural marriage as the sacred union of a man and a woman," Laszloffy said.

Judge Morris cited a September decision by the federal appellate court with jurisdiction over Montana in his decision. In that case, the Ninth Circuit Court ruled Idaho and Nevada’s same sex marriage bans unconstitutional.