Federal judge strikes down Alaska gay marriage ban

  • By Mark Thiessen
  • Sunday, October 12, 2014 10:26pm
  • News

ANCHORAGE — A federal judge on Sunday struck down Alaska’s first-in-the-nation ban on gay marriages, the latest court decision in a busy week for the issue.

The state of Alaska will begin accepting those applications first thing Monday morning, Phillip Mitchell, with the state Department of Vita Statistics, told The Associated Press in an email. Alaska has a three-day waiting period between between applications and marriage ceremonies.

The late Sunday afternoon decision caught many people off guard. No rallies were immediately planned, but some plaintiffs celebrated over drinks at an Anchorage bar.

Matthew Hamby, who along with his husband Christopher Shelden was one of five couples to sue, was “just have drinks with friends, enjoying it.”

He said he was “elated” U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess sided with them, and he planned to among the first in line to apply for a license Monday.

“This is just an amazing day for Alaska. We’re just so fortunate that so many have fought for equality for so long — I mean, decades,” said Susan Tow, who along with her wife, Chris Laborde, were among couples who sought to overturn Alaska’s ban.

Earlier in the week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear appeals from several states that were seeking to retain their bans on same-sex marriage.

The move on Oct. 6 means that gay marriage is now effectively legal in about 30 states. But much of last week was marked by confusion as lower courts and states worked through when weddings can begin.

On Tuesday, a federal appeals court in the West overturned marriage bans in Nevada and Idaho. On Thursday, West Virginia officials began issuing gay marriage licenses, and Kansas’ most populous county issued a marriage license Friday to a gay couple, believed to be the first such license in the state.

Sunday’s ruling in Alaska came in a lawsuit brought by five gay couples who had asked the state to overturn a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1998. The amendment defined marriage as being between one man and one woman.

The lawsuit filed in May sought to bar enforcement of Alaska’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. It also called for barring enforcement of any state laws that refuse to recognize gay marriages legally performed in other states or countries or that prevent unmarried gay couples from marrying.

Burgess heard arguments Friday afternoon and promised a quick decision. He released his 25-page decision Sunday afternoon.

“Refusing the rights and responsibilities afforded by legal marriage sends the public a government-sponsored message that same-sex couples and their familial relationships do not warrant the status, benefits and dignity given to couples of the opposite sex,” Burgess wrote.

“This Court finds that Alaska’s same-sex marriage laws violate the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment because no state interest provides ‘excessively persuasive justification’ for the significant infringement of rights that they inflicted upon homosexual individuals,” he wrote.

Gov. Sean Parnell said in a statement Sunday he was appealing to defend and uphold the law and the Alaska Constitution.

“Although the district court today may have been bound by the recent 9th Circuit panel opinion, the status of that opinion and the law in general in this area is in flux,” he said.

State lawyers were reviewing Burgess decision and working on the next steps to appeal.

Joshua Decker, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, said Alaska has no legal chance of prevailing at either the 9th Circuit Court or with the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It’s really unfortunate the governor wants to continue to swim against the tide of history and try to perpetuate discrimination against Alaskans,” said Decker. “We’re disappointed but that’s not going to dampen our elation.”

Hamby said the appeal was “ridiculous and futile.”

He also called it misguided “because it continues to injure same-sex couples who love each other and just want to get married.”

If the state does appeal to the 9th Circuit Court, chances of winning were slim since the federal appeals court already has ruled against Idaho and Nevada, which made similar arguments.

Alaska voters in 1998 approved a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between one man and one woman. But in the past year, the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down a provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that prevented legally married same-sex couples from receiving a range of federal benefits. Federal courts also have since struck down state constitutional bans in a number of states.

The plaintiffs are Hamby and Shelden; Laborde and Tow; Sean Egan and David Robinson; Tracey Wiese and Katrina Cortez; and Courtney Lamb and Stephanie Pearson. Lamb and Pearson are unmarried.

Tow on Sunday said she was happy for the children of Alaska gay couples who will now see their parents recognized.

“We never thought we’d see this in our lives,” she said.

Associated Press writer Rachel D’Oro contributed to this report.

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