Marriage Equality is a Montana Value

Supporters of marriage equality converged on Bozeman this past June to celebrate the Montana Pride festival. More than any other feeling, a tangible sense of acceptance and support overwhelmed participants as the city came together in a big way.

During the parade, Main Street overflowed with happy, cheering supporters (and a lone megaphone-wielding protester). Young children and senior citizens, straight and homosexual Montanans, war veterans and Christians, nonprofits and Bozeman businesses marched down Main and watched from the sidewalk. Afterward, Diane Sands, the first openly gay member of the Montana Legislature; Jamee Greer, a lobbyist with the Montana Human Rights network; and many others spoke about both their personal and larger struggles.

The support on display this June underlies a more complicated history for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Montana. In 2004, Montana passed Initiative 96 by public referendum, which amended the state’s constitution to recognize “only a marriage between one man and one woman.”

There are a number of potential explanations for this result, including Bush’s overwhelming defeat of Kerry in the state and a succeeding strong national shift in favor of equal rights, but those should not weigh as heavily as our state’s future actions.

Despite Montana’s political unpredictability, this restriction of the rights of a minority group breaks from an independent Montana ethos. Our state has a long history of respecting individual rights and liberties, and denying same-sex couples the right to marry is, simply put, un-Montanan.

Furthermore, it’s also a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. While opponents of equality might argue that there is no constitutionally protected “right to marry,” supporters can rightfully cite the Equal Protection Clause. In essence, any right that states extend to one segment of society cannot be denied another.

Montanans possess a beautiful ability to concurrently hold powerfully communitarian and fiercely individualistic sets of ideals. We care passionately for our neighbors and family, but also resent excessive oversight by a broad range of authority figures.

We value the oft-debated right of an individual to bear arms, the ability to access public lands for hunting and fishing, and many other day-to-day experiences without excessive regulation. As an example, we’ve come together as a community to fight the punitive and unrealistic student performance mandates from No Child Left Behind.

If we truly value those individual liberties as much as we claim, how can we deny something infinitely more powerful: the right to love someone else completely and have that choice affirmed by the society that surrounds us? It is far more dehumanizing to deny love than to restrict what type of ammunition clip your gun can use.

Conservative Christians often lament the apparent meaninglessness of marriage in a country where half end in divorce, while rebuking same-sex unions in the same breath. If nothing else, the powerful push by same-sex couples for equal marriage rights displays one oft-overlooked truth: Marriage still matters to our society. To many, it is something worth fighting for.

While some churches may rightfully choose not to perform same-sex marriages, many others are starting to welcome LGBT members into their congregations. Furthermore, it should be plainly stated that denial of rights to a certain group of people based on the often explicitly religious arguments conjured by opponents of marriage equality violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Briefly, the Establishment Clause restricts the ability of both the federal and (later) state governments’ abilities to promote a specific religion. Basing a denial of civil rights on explicitly religious grounds about the “sanctity” of marriage enshrines one religious group’s beliefs in secular law above those of other citizens.

Keeping in step with a refreshing decision by the national Democratic Party, Montana Democrats have officially added a platform plank calling for granting same-sex spouses “the same legal benefits, protections and responsibilities granted to all those who marry.”

In a move some have incorrectly heralded as a sign of progress, the Montana GOP has finally removed a platform plank calling for the criminalization of “homosexual acts.” Perhaps this would have been a sign of hope in the Middle Ages, but today it’s a hopeless anachronism from a party claiming to respect the “inherent dignity of each human being,” while urging the denial of equal rights to a significant segment of society in the same paragraph.

With public opinion polls increasingly showing that a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous observation rings true: “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” It is time for Montanans to actively bend that arc.

Despite differences of opinion between Democrats and Republicans, this is not a partisan problem; this is an unjustifiable inconsistency in our state spirit. The Montana ethic values individual liberty and that certainly extends to the bedroom.