On Wednesday, Nov. 19, a federal judge struck down Montana’s ban on same-sex marriage, stating that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Judge Brian Morris filed the ruling with the U.S. District Court in Great Falls, writing that the order was to take effect immediately. As quoted in Bloomberg News, Morris wrote in the ruling that, “The United States Constitution exists to protect disfavored minorities from the will of the majority . . . Equal protection of the laws will not be achieved through indiscriminate imposition of inequalities.” The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently struck down same-sex marriage bans in Nevada and Idaho, making Montana the 34th state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage.
Several same-sex couples went to the Gallatin County Clerk of District Court’s office on that Wednesday afternoon to apply for marriage licenses. Unfortunately they were informed that the necessary forms had to be updated to include same-sex marriages, and that the office would contact the couples as soon as the forms were updated. Numerous celebrations ensued after the ruling, including celebrations across Montana hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU celebrations even included officiants that could marry same-sex couples on the spot.
Montana Governor Steve Bullock and both Montana U.S. Senators Jon Tester and John Walsh have expressed support for the ruling, while Montana U.S. Representative Steve Daines and Montana Attorney General Tim Fox have expressed dissent. As quoted in the Bozeman Chronicle, Gov. Bullock commented on the ruling saying, “Today’s decision ensures we are closer to fulfilling our promise of freedom, dignity, and equality for all Montanans.” Surely this ruling is a milestone for positive social change in Montana. Although Montana has traditionally been a conservative state, there is no excuse for discriminating against innocent people, especially when the discrimination leads to serious societal disadvantages.
Marriage is essentially a legal recognition of a relationship between two people. It impacts several different societal resources, such as insurance, mortgages and financial credit. When a same-sex couple is denied the right to marry, they are also denied many resources equal to those offered to heterosexual couples. One woman from Ravalli County was denied health insurance coverage through her wife’s company on the account that same-sex marriages were not legally recognized in Montana.
Even worse than the unequal access to societal resources is the psychological toll that discrimination takes on same-sex couples who feel alienated from society. The woman denied health insurance was quoted in the Montana Standard saying, “It does something to you psychologically when you’re not supported by society.” Same-sex couples across Montana have been discriminated against for years on the sole basis of their sexual orientation. It should not matter whether a couple is heterosexual or homosexual. All couples should be treated equally in a society that claims to promote justice, freedom, and equality. Every person should have the right to express their love regardless of whether or not their lover is of the same sex, and have it legally recognized by the state of Montana.
In 1997, the Montana Legislature enacted a statute that effectively banned the recognition of same-sex marriages in Montana. A few years later in 2004, a constitutional amendment was added to the Montana Constitution that prohibited same-sex marriages. Morris’ ruling now overturns both laws, ordering that same-sex marriages be made available and legitimately recognized immediately. Some Montana lawmakers have expressed discontent with the fact that the ruling came from an unelected judge. Montana Attorney General Tim Fox has even stated that he plans to appeal the ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of the state of Montana and the sovereignty of the Montana Constitution. We must ensure that the ruling remains the same.
Article Two, Section Four of the Montana Constitution, titled “Individual Dignity,” states that, “The dignity of the human being is inviolable. No person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws.” Yet surely the previous ban on same-sex marriage was eroding the dignity of homosexual Montanans, and it was definitely not providing equal protection under the law. The ban on same-sex marriage in Montana was a breach into the personal lives of Montana citizens. Law is meant to protect citizens from harm and promote a mutually beneficial society. It should never extend so far as to mandate who we can legally express our love for. All Montanans, at least those who actually believe in freedom, justice, opportunity and equality for all, can celebrate a major advancement in Montana law as same-sex couples finally have the right to be recognized legally. It will be up to us to ensure that they are accepted socially as well.