Montana court rules against domestic partner appeal

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The Montana Supreme Court on Dec. 17 ruled against the ACLU’s request for immediate full domestic partnership protection for same-sex couples, but said the case could move forward challenging same-sex couples’ lack of protection in individual statutes.

The ACLU and six same-sex couples who were plaintiffs in the case plan to pursue legal options.

“Three of the justices said they would have granted same-sex couples recognition as domestic partners now,” said ACLU of Montana legal director Jon Ellingson. “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.”

The court stated, “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.”

Ellingson said, “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.”

Plaintiff Mary Leslie said in a statement, “We’re encouraged by the decision because the justices said that we could pursue the protections we are seeking. 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 death benefits when her partner was killed in an accident.

Another plaintiff, Denise Boettcher of Laurel, Mont., was denied bereavement leave when her partner Kellie Gibson’s father died.

In his dissent from the majority, Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson wrote that same-sex couples should be given full protection now. He wrote, “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.”

The ACLU said close to 1,500 Montanans and more than 100 Montana-owned businesses have petitoned in support of domestic partnerships.

Also, 66 Montana religious leaders signed onto an amicus brief supporting the ACLU’s appeal and even more clergy signed a statement supporting the rights of same-sex couples.

“Montanans believe all their neighbors deserve dignity and respect,” stated the Rev. Marc Stewart, a minister with the Montana/Northern Wyoming United Church of Christ Conference. “We believe that loving, committed couples should be able to fully live their own lives and have the protection of the state.”