Montana Gay Couples Argue for Same Status as Wedded People

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – An attorney for six gay couples suing the state for the same rights as married couples told a judge Tuesday that the Montana Constitution guarantees them those legal protections.

The plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, want the legal status that will allow them to make decisions about their families’ health care, inheritance, burial and the ability to file joint tax returns, among other issues.

They asked District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock to grant them an injunction and require the state to create the statutory framework that gives them those protections.

The ACLU asked the judge to rule without going to trial, and the state asked him to dismiss the case.

Sherlock was not expected to make an immediate ruling. A trial date has been set for June 27 if he allows the case to proceed.

State attorneys say spousal benefits are limited by definition to married couples, and the Montana Constitution defines marriage as being between a man and a woman.

The court can’t require the state to extend spousal benefits beyond that definition without going against the state constitution, the state said in its motion to dismiss.

The ACLU said the couples aren’t challenging the 2004 initiative that added the marriage definition to the state constitution, but it said the state is interpreting that clause too narrowly.

Attorney General Steve Bullock argued in an Oct. 31 filing that the couples’ relationship interests are already protected through “a variety of other legal arrangements already available to them.”

The 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 Stacey Haugland and Mary Leslie, of Bozeman.

Originally there were 14 plaintiffs, but Casey Charles and David Wilson, of Missoula, dropped out of the lawsuit for personal reasons, the ACLU said.

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