State activists vow to topple marriage bans

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

Florida’s largest gay rights group is soliciting help – but not from donors, volunteers or voters. Equality Florida is looking for plaintiffs to sue the Sunshine State in an effort to overturn a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage.

LGBT civil rights leaders in many other states also vowed to topple anti-gay marriage bans as they heralded the U.S. Supreme Court rulings on June 26 that overturned a key provision in the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8.

Meanwhile, same-sex couples, including the two couples in the Prop 8 case, began marrying in California, and U.S. cabinet secretaries swiftly moved to carry out President Barack Obama’s directive to honor the marriages of same-sex couples.

Section 3 of DOMA defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman and prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. The demise of Section 3 means that married same-sex couples have access to more than 1,100 federal rights and benefits previously only available to opposite-sex couples. 

Though questions remain for gay couples residing in states that do not recognize their marriages, including Wisconsin, Obama has said he wants his administration to implement – swiftly and smoothly – the Supreme Court’s ruling.

The Department of Homeland Security quickly adapted to a post-DOMA America. By June 29, a binational gay couple in Florida had received news that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approved their green card petition. On July 3, a binational lesbian couple in Colorado learned that Immigration Services had approved a marriage-based green card.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she instructed the agency “to review immigration visa petitions filed on behalf of a same-sex spouse in the same manner as those filed on behalf of an opposite-sex spouse.” 

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Attorney General Eric Holder, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Office of Personnel Management acting director Elaine Kaplan and Secretary of State John Kerry also announced plans to swiftly implement the ruling in United States v. Windsor. Kerry was one of a handful of senators to vote against DOMA in 1996, arguing then that the measure was unconstitutional. 

“As Secretary of State, I look forward to the work that now can and must be done to adjust rules and regulations that affect the many married Americans who were hurt by this law,” Kerry said.

After DOMA fell, his former colleagues in the Senate reintroduced the Respect for Marriage Act to fully repeal DOMA and establish a clear rule for the federal government.

“We have an obligation to ensure that every same-sex couple – whether they live in Arkansas or New York, Kansas or California, can share in the emotional and deserved victory,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights group. “We have momentum on our side, and it’s only a matter of time until the remaining parts of DOMA are entirely repealed.”

The bill may advance in the Democratically-controlled Senate, but chances of passage in the GOP-controlled House are less than slim.

Same-sex marriage is legal in the District of Columbia and 13 states, but the other states, with the exception of New Mexico, have laws or constitutional amendments prohibiting such marriages. Those prohibitions, depending on the state, will have to be repealed by legislators, overturned by courts or lifted at the ballot box.

The Supreme Court opinions should help, including the dissent in the DOMA case from arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote, “By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage as an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition.”

Inspired, Equality Florida launched the campaign to repeal the state’s constitutional amendment at the ballot box but also is preparing for a lawsuit. The group recently advertised, “We’re looking for a same-sex couple who may be willing to sue the state of Florida in a marriage equality lawsuit. If you are interested please contact us with the form below and we’ll be in touch!”

In Michigan, activists and Democratic lawmakers want to hold a referendum to repeal the state constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Plus, a lawsuit filed by two women seeking to marry is headed for trial. On July 1, a federal judge, with a nod to the Supreme Court rulings, said, “Plaintiffs are entitled to their day in court and they shall have it.”

In New Jersey, lawmakers passed a marriage equality bill in 2012 that was vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Democratic lawmakers may call for an override vote. Meanwhile, seven gay couples have sued, arguing that civil unions are not equal to marriage.

Illinois lawmakers could vote on a marriage equality bill this year, but lawsuits filed by Lambda Legal and the ACLU also demand marriage equality. On July 10, the groups asked a court for summary judgment.

In Hawaii, there is legislative support for same-sex marriage. Also, a lawsuit filed by two women who want to marry is before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the same court that ruled against Prop 8. A judge already ruled that denying the women marriage rights violates guarantees of due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment.

In Utah, three same-sex couples have sued to marry. In Pennsylvania, gay state Rep. Brian Sims plans to introduce a bill to allow gay marriages and, on July 9, 21 people represented by the ACLU sued for marriage equality. 

Arizona, Arkansas, Oregon and Ohio activists hope to petition for 2014 ballot initiatives to repeal anti-gay constitutional amendments. Nevada activists are pursuing a marriage equality referendum in 2016 and Colorado is organizing for a ballot initiative, though there’s no target date.

In New Mexico, the law does not say same-sex couples can marry, but it doesn’t say they cannot. So the ACLU has asked the state Supreme Court to clarify whether gay couples can get marriage licenses.