Activists celebrate as equality surges forward from coast to coast

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

One. Two. Three . . . There was a time when counting the marriage equality states involved simple arithmetic that could be done on one hand.

These days, counting up the equality states gets complicated. 

Same-sex couples can marry in the District of Columbia and 14 states for sure, but there have been marriage licenses issued by county officials in at least two other states.

Meanwhile, Oregon is recognizing out-of-state gay marriages and same-sex couples are entering into marriages under tribal law in Oklahoma.

And, as WiG went to press, lawmakers in Illinois and Hawaii were poised to vote on marriage equality bills while courts in Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and at least 16 other states were facing lawsuits seeking to overturn anti-gay marriage bans.

“Not only did we usher in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck a mortal blow to federal marriage discrimination, bringing important legal protections to families in every state, but this year alone we’ve won the freedom to marry in five more states — and the year is not even over,” said Evan Wolfson, founder of the Freedom to Marry campaign and one of the earliest leaders in the marriage equality effort.

Saying ‘I do’ today

Same-sex couples can marry, with certainty, in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia.

Gay couples won the freedom to marry most recently in New Jersey, where, in September, a state judge ruled the marriage ban unconstitutional and ordered that same-sex couples be allowed to marry beginning Oct. 21. The judge then denied a request for a stay from the state.

The state Supreme Court also denied a state request for a stay.

So, just after midnight on Oct. 21, same-sex couples began exchanging vows. One of the first ceremonies took place in Newark, with Mayor Cory Booker officiating. “Tonight, we have crossed a barrier, and now, while you all have fallen into love, I want to say that the truth is, that the state of New Jersey has risen to love,” said Booker, elected to the U.S. Senate a week earlier. 

By mid-day, Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who in 2012 vetoed an equality bill, announced there would be no further challenge to marriage equality in the Garden State, where an estimated 17,000 same-sex couples reside.

New Jersey lawmakers may adopt a law codifying same-sex marriage — which could happen this winter — but Christie’s announcement has brought to an end an 11-year legal battle.

However, legal challenges continue in at least 19 other states, as WiG went to press.

Court challenges

The same day same-sex couples began marrying in New Jersey, the National Center for Lesbian Rights filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Tennessee on behalf of four same-sex couples who want their marriages recognized by the state.

“Fairness and equality are the guiding principles of our government and, as a member of the Armed Forces, I have fought and will continue to fight for those principles,” said Army Reserve Sgt. Ijpe DeKoe, a plaintiff in the case. “After returning to Memphis with Thom (Kostura), I was saddened to learn that Tennessee law does not live up to those ideals in the way it treats married same-sex couples.”

Also that day, after relishing the victory in New Jersey, executive director Kevin Cathcart announced Lambda Legal Defense Fund would focus on its lawsuits in Illinois, Virginia, West Virginia and Nevada, where a federal suit to overturn a constitutional amendment is at the appeals court level and could be headed for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Cathcart said Lambda has a national strategy and “with our local and national partners, marriage equality will be a reality coast-to-coast very soon.”
Marriage equality also is the goal in:

• Federal and state lawsuits filed in Arkansas, where three gay couples are seeking recognition of their marriages in New York and 11 same-sex couples are suing for the right to marry.

• A federal complaint in Hawaii, where a trial is scheduled for January.

• Two federal suits in Kentucky, both seeking to overturn the state constitutional ban on gay marriage.

• A federal case in Michigan filed by a lesbian couple seeking to marry and to protect their family. A trial to determine the fate of the 2004 constitutional amendment is set for Feb. 25. 

• A federal lawsuit in Mississippi, where a couple is demanding the state recognize their marriage from California.

• Multiple lawsuits in New Mexico, where the state Supreme Court held a two-hour hearing on Oct. 23. Civil rights activists, gay couples, a number of county clerks and the state attorney general asked the justices to rule that same-sex couples can legally marry in the state.

Earlier this year, based on lower court rulings, clerks in eight New Mexico counties began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. To date, nearly 1,500 gay couples have received licenses — and many of them have held weddings.

“We have county clerks who are truly struggling with this issue on a daily basis,” Daniel Ivey-Soto, the attorney for the state’s county clerks, told the five justices.

On the opposing side, a lawyer from Alliance Defending Freedom, representing a group of Republican legislators, told the justices that if they allowed marriage “to be a genderless institution, there is no longer an inherent link between procreation and marriage.”

The court’s decision is expected this year.

• A federal case in North Carolina brought by the ACLU on behalf of six couples and their children.

• A lawsuit in Ohio, where two same-sex couples sued for recognition of their out-of-state marriages and to overturn a constitutional amendment. A federal judge has ordered the state to recognize the marriages, but the state is challenging the ruling.

One of the plaintiffs, John Arthur, died on Oct. 22 at age 48 after suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Arthur and James Obergefell, who were together more than 20 years, married in Maryland and sued Ohio to recognize their marriage earlier this year, hoping for a resolution before Arthur died.

The couple’s attorney, Al Gerhardstein, said the love Arthur and Obergefell shared “is a model for us all.”

“Part of John’s legacy will be the difference he has already made in the struggle for marriage equality,” he added.

• A federal lawsuit in Oklahoma alleging a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman denies people the right to marry the person of one’s choice.

• A lawsuit filed by two same-sex couples seeking marriage rights in Oregon.

• Three lawsuits in Pennsylvania, including a federal case brought by the ACLU on behalf of 23 people and another lawsuit over Montgomery County Clerk Bruce Hanes’ decision to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

• A federal lawsuit in South Carolina brought by a lesbian couple seeking to marry.

• A federal lawsuit filed by three gay couples challenging Utah’s ban.

Also, two cases in which same-sex couples are seeking the freedom to divorce in Texas have reached the state Supreme Court and could lead to a ruling of some kind on marriage equality.

Meanwhile, Equality Florida has issued a call for same-sex couples willing to be plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the anti-gay ban in the Sunshine State.

Legislative drive

The lawsuits pending in Hawaii and Illinois could be nullified this fall — even as quickly as this week or next.

A special session called solely to consider a marriage equality bill began on Oct. 28 in Hawaii. If lawmakers pass the measure, Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie is certain to sign it into law and gay couples could begin marrying on Nov. 18.

In Illinois, a fall veto session is taking place in Springfield, and the House could consider an equality bill this month or next.

The measure passed the Senate in February and has the support of Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, but it was not called for a vote in the House during the regular session, which ended in May.

The bill’s proponents and opponents rallied at the Capitol in the first days of the veto session.

Quinn addressed the equality rally, attended by about 3,000 people. Later, he said, “It’s time for members of the Illinois House to guarantee equal rights for all and send this bill to my desk as soon as possible.”

Organizing and activism

In a number of states, legislative and legal drives for equality are being supported by protest movements, especially in the South, where same-sex couples associated with the Campaign for Southern Equality are visiting clerks to request marriage licenses.

The actions are taking place in Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia and North Carolina, where, in early October, Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger accepted marriage license applications to same-sex couples and asked the state attorney general for a ruling on whether he could issue licenses.

In several other states, activists are working to ask voters to overturn anti-gay amendments. Arizona, Colorado and Nevada voters could vote on the issue in 2016. Oregon voters could vote on it in 2014.