Montana Legalizes Gay Marriage, South Carolina to Follow

Montana became the 34th state to legalize gay marriage after a federal judge ruled same-sex couples have a constitutional right to wed, and South Carolina is set to join the trend today.

A ruling overturning Montana’s decade-old ban on gay marriage was handed down yesterday in Great Falls by U.S. District Judge Brian Morris, who held that the need to protect same-sex families and their children outweighs the potential displeasure of residents who voted for the 2004 amendment.

“The United States Constitution exists to protect disfavored minorities from the will of the majority,” Morris said in the ruling. “Equal protection of the laws will not be achieved through indiscriminate imposition of inequalities.”

The Supreme Court started the trend last year by gutting the law that barred federal recognition of same-sex marriages, while stopping short of declaring a constitutional right for gays to marry. Last month, the high court sidestepped the dispute, letting stand rulings in favor of gay marriage without taking up appeals challenging them.

The justices may be forced to address the issue again after the federal appeals court in Cincinnati this month issued the first appellate ruling against same-sex unions since the high court’s landmark decision in 2013. Four other appeals courts have come to the opposite conclusion, finding a constitutional right to wed, creating a split that usually requires the nation’s top court to give a definitive ruling.

Montana Case

The Montana case was filed in May by couples including Angie and Tonya Rolando, who were denied a marriage license in the state. Other couples in the case wed legally in other states, only to lose recognition at home, according to court filings.

“Calling Tonya my partner, my significant other, my girlfriend, my perpetual fiancee, has never done justice to our relationship,” Angie Rolando of Great Falls said in an e-mailed statement about the ruling. “Now I can look forward to the day when I can introduce Tonya as my wife.”

South Carolina is due to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples today after a federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, refused to halt legalization while the state appeals a ruling that overturned its ban. The Supreme Court today rejected a last-ditch bid by state officials for a halt.

National Fight

The state’s Republican attorney general, Alan Wilson, who filed the Supreme Court petition two days ago, said South Carolina will continue to fight against gay marriage nationally by backing the Cincinnati-based Sixth Circuit’s ruling.

“When the U.S. Supreme Court decides to consider the case, our office will be supporting the position of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is more consistent with South Carolina state law, which upholds the unique status of traditional marriage,” Wilson said.

The South Carolina case was filed by a lesbian couple, Colleen Condon and Anne Bleckley, a week after Wilson filed papers to block a judge from issuing their marriage license.

Wilson’s move was at odds with the lead appeals court in the jurisdiction, the Richmond-based Fourth Circuit, which upheld rulings overturning bans in nearby states, the couple said.

Beth Littrell, a lawyer with Lambda Legal who represented the couple in the South Carolina case, said the appeals court’s ruling “speaks volumes about the inevitability of the marriage ban being struck down.”

“South Carolinians are one step closer to equality, and that’s a good result for all,” Littrell said in a phone interview yesterday.

The case is Rolando v. Fox, 4:14-cv-00040, U.S. District Court, District of Montana (Great Falls).

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