Montana Supreme Court Allows Case Seeking Domestic Partnership Protections for Same-Sex Couples to Move Forward
Justices Reverse District Court’s Dismissal and Allow Litigation to Proceed
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HELENA, Mont. — The Montana Supreme Court today granted, in part, an appeal by the American Civil Liberties Union and six committed same-sex couples to secure domestic partnership protections.
Though the court denied the plaintiffs’ initial appeal as too broad, the justices allowed the ACLU to move forward with more narrowly tailored efforts to secure equal treatment for same-sex couples in the state.
“Three of the justices said they would have granted same-sex couples recognition as domestic partners now. The majority also made clear that the decision to remand the case for additional proceedings in the lower court was based on technical issues, not on the substance of our argument that the Montana Constitution mandates equal treatment of all people,” said ACLU of Montana legal director Jon Ellingson. “They said that while we could not challenge the omission of same-sex couples from all of the statutes involving the rights of married couples in one case, we can challenge those statutes individually. We plan to do just that.”
The opinion states: “It is this Court’s opinion that Plaintiffs should be given the opportunity, if they choose to take it, to amend the complaint and to refine and specify the general constitutional challenges they have proffered.”
“We’re encouraged by the decision because the justices said that we could pursue the protections we are seeking,” said Mary Leslie, who lives with her partner, Stacey Haugland in Bozeman. “Legal protection is essential, not just for our families, but for all same-sex couples. We won’t stop until every loving couple is treated fairly.”
Leslie lost her home because she was ineligible for worker's compensation survivor benefits when her partner was killed in an accident. Another plaintiff, Denise Boettcher of Laurel, was denied bereavement leave when her partner Kellie Gibson’s father died.
In his dissent from the majority, Justice James Nelson wrote that same-sex couples should be given full protection, saying the case, “concerns the right of committed intimate same-sex couples to receive the same civil protections which the State makes available to committed intimate different-sex couples … I have never disagreed more strongly with the Court as I do in this case. With due respect, I believe today’s decision… wrongly deprives an abused minority their civil rights.”
Nearly 1,500 Montanans and more than 100 Montana-owned businesses have signed on in support of domestic partnerships, and more are signing on each day. Sixty-six Montana religious leaders signed an amicus brief supporting the ACLU’s appeal. Even more clergy signed a statement supporting the rights of same-sex couples.
“Montanans believe all their neighbors deserve dignity and respect,” said Rev. Marc Stewart, a Montana/Northern Wyoming United Church of Christ Conference minister. “We believe that loving, committed couples should be able to fully live their own lives and have the protection of the state.”
Other plaintiffs in the case are Mary Anne Guggenheim and Jan Donaldson of Helena, Mike Long and Rich Parker of Bozeman, MJ Williams and Nancy Owens of Basin, and Rick Wagner and Gary Stallings of Butte.
In addition to Ellingson, the couples are represented by Elizabeth Gill, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project; James Goetz and Ben Alke of Goetz, Gallik & Baldwin P.C.; Betsy Griffing; and Ruth Borenstein and Neil Perry of the law firm Morrison & Foerster LLP.
Additional information about the case can be found at www.aclumontana.org and www.aclu.org/mtpartnerships