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Montanans React To The Supreme Court's Gay Marriage Ruling

Legislature Hears Passionate Testimony On Discrimination Protections For LGBTQ Montanans
Josh Burnham
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Bozeman's Stacey Haugland never thought she'd live to see the day when gay marriage would be legalized nationwide. The Supreme Court today guaranteed that right."I assumed that by being a lesbian I would never have a job, own a home, I would always be an outcast in society. You just expect not to be included," Haugland says. "I'm approaching 50 so this is a lifetime thing. I'll cry talking about it. It's just an amazing moment."

Haugland and her partner, Mary Leslie, are veterans of the long debate over same-sex marriage rights. They were one of six couples represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana in an earlier lawsuit seeking domestic partnership recognition.

Haugland says her partner lost everything years ago, after her partner's ex-girlfriend was killed in a workplace accident.

"The woman's estranged parents were able to empty out the house and empty out the checkbook. Mary had to sell her home. She had no say in where her partner was buried. She never got to see her body. (It was a) huge, huge traumatic incident that was made worse because of the lack of relationship protections."

Haugland says the Supreme Court's ruling means everyone now enjoys the same rights and benefits provided by marriage.

"It really matters in the practical survival, day-to-day ways of living whether or not your relationship is recognized."

Not everyone in Montana thinks the ruling is a victory.

"We think it's disastrous on several levels."

That's Jeff Laszloffy of the Montana Family Foundation. Laszloffy wrote the 2004 constitutional amendment that successfully banned gay marriage in Montana.

"The ruling negated the popular vote of the vast majority of states in the nation. The people of the United State feel that marriage should be defined as a union between a man and a woman. We have five unelected judges on the Supreme Court that feel otherwise. In this case the opinion of the court trumps the will of the people," Laszloffy says.

Republican Senator Steve Daines released a statement today echoing that disappointment in the Supreme Court's decision. Republican Congressman Ryan Zinke  says the ruling undermines religious freedom and usurps the rights of Montana and other states that have chosen to define marriage within their states.

ACLU of Montana's Niki Zupanic:

"I'd say that's disappointing."

A federal judge lifted Montana's ban on gay marriage last fall. That decision was prompted by a case brought by the ACLU of Montana. But a cloud of uncertainty remained over same-sex weddings in Montana until today.

"Most Montanans support the ability of same sex couples to protect each other and to take care of each other," says Zupanic. "An overwhelming majority of Americans all across the country - roughly 60-percent - support the right to marriage specifically. So, times have changed."

The Montana Family Foundation's Jeff Laszloffy says even more is at stake than traditional values and the will of voters. He maintains the court essentially ruled that mothers and fathers are irrelevant.

"We know that the vast majority of marriages where there's a mother and a father in an intact home with their biological children, that those children do the very best in that circumstance. Although you can find situations where children do less well in the same setting, for the vast majority of kids that's where they do best and that's what we should set as public policy."

"Aw, come out of the dark ages," responds Bozeman's Stacey Haugland.

"And we have subjected our children to tons of studies to establish that the children of lesbians and gays function as well, if not better, than the children raised in heterosexual homes." 

Howgland says today is about celebrating family. All kind of families.

"It's about saying that the children of gay and lesbian parents can feel secure that if something happens to one of their parents they're still going to be taken care of because that relationship was respected by our legal structures," Haugland says.

The Family Foundation's Jeff Laszloffy maintains this discussion is not over. He says the Court has made blunders in the past and points to the Roe vs. Wade abortion, Citizens United campaign finance and the Dred Scott decisions as evidence.

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox defended Montana's constitutional marriage amendment which was before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Fox says he no longer has any reason to do so in light of today’s development. He says he disagrees with the Supreme Court's ruling but acknowledges it's now the law of the land.

Governor Steve Bullock and Senator Jon Tester both issued statements today praising the decision.

Opponents Look to Make a Stand

Opponents of same-sex marriage continue to look for ways to take a stand, even as the Supreme Court declares it to be the law in every state. Steve Jess reports on one approach.

Last year the website “First Things” published what it called The Marriage Pledge. Clergy could publicly declare they would no longer sign government-issued marriage certificates. Two pastors from Montana are among the 532 people who’ve signed the pledge so far.

Richard Jesperson, who leads a small Lutheran flock in Big Sandy, put his name down because the state’s definition of marriage no longer matched his definition.

"If the state comes along and says this is what marriage is, or this is what marriage is not, and if in conscience we feel conflicted about that, we have to choice to make,"

After signing the pledge, Jesperson had second thoughts. While he still disapproves of same sex marriage, he decided his tiny, close-knit congregation was not a place where he needed to make a stand.

"In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have signed it and I should have looked for some other way to acknowledge that concern," Jesperson said.

The other signer from Montana is pastor of a small evangelical church in Whitehall, but he declined our request for an interview.

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