First Gay Couples Receive Marriage Licenses in Flathead County

Same-sex couples receiving licenses, marrying across Montana on Thursday

By Dillon Tabish

A day after a federal judge struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, the first gay couples received marriage licenses in Flathead County early Thursday, marking a watershed moment in one of the last states to allow equal rights to gay couples.

“It feels like we can be a real family now,” said Heather Bryan, who received a marriage license with her partner of four years, Tamara Walter, at the county’s Justice Center in downtown Kalispell.

It had been an emotional 24 hours for the two local women, who found out Wednesday night that they could suddenly legally marry.

“We were thinking of moving somewhere. I was raised here. I didn’t want to move just to get married. It just wasn’t fair,” said Walter.

Walter said the community seems to have gotten more accepting of gays and lesbians in recent years.

“It was difficult five years ago to even tell somebody you were gay,” she said. “Now it’s changed a lot in the valley. People are realizing that there’s less wrong with it than they thought.”

Walter and Bryan eagerly awaited an opportunity to hold a marriage ceremony after receiving their license, as other couples arrived to apply for their licenses.

The first formal ceremony inside the Justice Center was held Thursday morning for two local men, who asked to remain anonymous in the press. Eric Hummel, a local attorney, filled in as justice of the peace presiding over the brief ceremony because the county’s two other judges were gone. The two men became the first gay couple on record as officially married in Flathead County.

Shawn Sharp and John Blanchard applied to be married shortly after the marriage license department opened at 8:30 a.m. After filling out the license application and signing the documents, the two men emerged with the first marriage license for a same-sex couple in Flathead County.

“It’s shocking,” said Sharp. “It’s exciting and overwhelming. We didn’t know we’d be the first.”

Right after Sharp and Blanchard, two other men filled out the application and received a license. When they were finished and were quietly exiting, a young boy came up and handed the two men a homemade card with a heart on it. The card read, “Love is love. Congratulations.”

Cherilyn DeVries brought two of her teenage sons to the Justice Center Thursday morning to witness the first gay couples being allowed to marry in Montana.

“This is one of the biggest civil rights issues of their generation. I wanted them to be here and see it happen, especially in an area not known for always supporting equality,” DeVries said. “This is a long-time coming. I’m relieved to see this day.”

Others have not welcomed the news.

Republican Rep. Steve Daines expressed disappointment in Wednesday’s ruling, saying an “unelected federal judge” had ignored Montanans’ wishes.

“I strongly believe in marriage as the union of one man and one woman and will continue working to defend the family,” Daines said in a statement.

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, a Republican, said he would appeal the judge’s ruling.

“It is the attorney general’s sworn duty to uphold and defend Montana’s constitution until such time as there is no further review or no appeal can be made in a court of law,” he said in a statement. “Fulfilling that duty, the state of Montana will appeal this ruling in light of the fact that there are conflicting federal court decisions and no final word from the U.S. Supreme Court.”

The ACLU held events at courthouses across the state celebrating the first couples being allowed to marry.

Before Wednesday, Montana was one of three states holding firm in its legal fight against same-sex marriage despite rulings from federal appeals courts that oversee them that concluded gay and lesbian couples have the right to wed.

That all changed, at least for the moment, Wednesday after U.S. District Judge Brian Morris ruled Montana’s constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a man and a woman violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said in a statement he has instructed his administration to quickly take the appropriate steps to ensure legally married same-sex couples are recognized and afforded the same rights and responsibilities that married Montanans enjoy.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Montana Gay Couples Exchange Vows After Ban Tossed

BILLINGS (AP) — Gay couples began exchanging wedding vows at county courthouses across Montana on Thursday, a day after a federal judge threw out the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

Randi Paul and Jill Houk of Billings lined up for their marriage license before dawn at the Yellowstone County Courthouse. Less than two hours later — and just minutes after paying $53 for a license — they wed in a crowded courthouse hallway as dozens of friends, supporters and members of the media crowded around.

Universal Life Church minister Jeffrey Hill officiated over the brief ceremony. He said the event marked a triumph of love over law.

For Paul, a 28-year-old legal analyst, the occasion marked the realization of a longtime dream of getting married in her home state.

“I’m a super Montanan. That’s a big part of who I am. The prospect of getting married somewhere else was upsetting,” she said.

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox filed notice late Wednesday that he is appealing the ruling from U.S. District Judge Brian Morris that struck down the ban and made Montana the 34th state in which same-sex marriages are now legal.

Fox won’t seek an immediate stay to block the ruling while the case is pending. His spokesman, John Barnes, said the state was waiting for a San Francisco-based federal appeals court to set a schedule for the case.

But some couples said they were eager to say their vows in case Fox’s appeal prevails.

“Our feeling was to make sure to get married in a positive legal climate,” said Danielle Egnew, a 45-year-old Billings musician who was applying for a license to marry Rebecca Douglas. She said the couple already has a date for a larger ceremony — Sept. 15 — but would exchange vows Thursday to be safe.

Morris ruled that Montana’s constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a man and a woman violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

The judge recognized that some might disagree with his decision, given that the state’s ban was approved by voters. But he said the U.S. Constitution exists to protect “disfavored minorities from the will of the majority.”

In September, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down similar bans in Idaho and Nevada as unconstitutional. Montana is part of the 9th Circuit, and Morris cited the appellate court ruling in his decision.

The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday was holding celebrations at several county courthouses across the state, with officiants present for same-sex couples who wished to marry immediately.

In Helena, the first couple to get their license was Mary Blair and Jamie Fortune, who have been together nearly four years.

“Everything’s changing for the better,” Blair said. They plan to wed Dec. 31, to coincide with their anniversary.

Montana is one of three states that continued their legal fight against gay marriage despite rulings in favor of the practice from federal appeals courts that oversee them. The other two are South Carolina and Kansas, where gay marriage is being allowed in some parts of the state.

In South Carolina, Republican Attorney General Alan Wilson said he would fight to uphold the state’s constitutional ban even though the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday denied his emergency request to block gay marriages being performed there.

The first marriage licenses were issued Wednesday in Charleston, South Carolina, and a lesbian couple exchanged vows on the courthouse steps.

Wilson said the nation’s top court has not yet resolved conflicting rulings by federal appeals courts. He said a decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding gay marriage bans in several Midwest states means the matter likely will go to the high court.

“Our office will be supporting the position of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is more consistent with South Carolina state law, which upholds the unique status of traditional marriage,” Wilson said.