ACLU Sues Montana Over Rights for Same-Sex Couples

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A civil rights advocacy group filed a lawsuit Thursday on behalf of seven gay couples demanding the state provide them the same rights married couples have in making decisions affecting their family’s health care, finances, inheritance and other matters.

The American Civil Liberties Union claims in the lawsuit that the state is violating the Montana Constitution by denying those rights to gay couples in committed relationships.

The 14 plaintiffs aren’t challenging an amendment to the state constitution that bans same-sex marriage, the lawsuit says. But they want the state to acknowledge that gay couples have a constitutional right to equal protection under the law.

ACLU of Montana legal director Betsy Griffing said at a news conference that the plaintiffs, seated behind her, are “14 highly accomplished individuals who are your neighbors, your co-workers and your community members.”

“The guarantees in the Montana Constitution of equal protection, privacy and dignity require the state of Montana to afford them the same legal rights and benefits as couples who marry.”

Montana Department of Justice spokeswoman Judy Beck acknowledged her office received a copy of the lawsuit but said she could not comment until state attorneys have reviewed it.

Among the rights married couples have that gay couples do not, according to the lawsuit:

— 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.

The lawsuit does not define what constitutes a “committed” same-sex relationship, Griffing said.

Possible models for statutory changes can be found in Vermont and New Jersey, both of which changed their laws regarding the rights of same-sex couples after lawsuits were filed, she said.

The case has been assigned to District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena. The plaintiffs are asking Sherlock to declare the state’s exclusion of same-sex couples from the protections given married couples a violation of the Montana Constitution. They also are seeking a judicial order that requires the state to give gay couples the legal status and statutory framework that gives them those protections.

Two plaintiffs, Stacey Haugland and Mary Leslie, a Bozeman couple who have been together for 12 years, say they want to be sure they can help each other in an emergency.

“I want to know that if I die, Mary can stay in our home and have access to our retirement funds. I want to know that if I get sick the person who loves me most, Mary, can make medical decisions for me,” said Haugland, 44. “I can’t be sure of any of those things, and that’s why I’m a part of this lawsuit: I want to protect my family.”

Leslie, 47, said she learned firsthand the lack of rights given to gay couples when her previous partner of eight years, Erika Pancow, was killed in an accident in 1996. Because she was considered a “stranger in blood” to Pancow, Leslie was one of the last people informed of her death and had no say in how she was buried, Leslie said.

Pancow’s estranged family took half of the couple’s mutual funds and Pancow’s workers compensation death benefits, and they were allowed to enter the couple’s home to take Pancow’s possessions. Leslie said there was nothing she could do legally to stop them, but added she sympathized with their loss.

“I lost my life partner, I lost my financial security, I lost many of the items that allow a household to run,” she said. “It is impossibly hard to lose the one that you love. No one should have to cope with the violations of person, home and physical well-being that I was subjected to.”

The other plaintiffs are Jan Donaldson and Mary Anne Guggenheim of Helena; Kellie Gibson and Denise Boettcher of Laurel; Gary Stallings and Rick Wagner of Butte; Nancy Owens and M.J. Williams of Basin; Mike Long and Rich Parker of Bozeman; and Casey Charles and David Wilson of Missoula.