HELENA – The Montana Supreme Court on Monday rejected an “overly broad” request that gay couples be guaranteed the same benefits as married couples, but left the door open for advocates to modify their case and try again.
The plaintiffs promised to do so, declaring they are “on the right side of history” and will inevitably win.
The court wrote in their 4-3 decision that a lower court was within its discretion when it earlier dismissed the request.
In that decision, a Helena district court judge dismissed the six couples’ case last year after state prosecutors argued that spousal benefits are limited by definition to married couples. A voter-approved amendment in 2004 defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock based his ruling in part on the state’s marriage amendment, and said that an order to force state lawmakers to write new laws would violate the separation of powers.
The majority justices upheld that decision. The court wrote that the gay couples want the court to intervene “without identifying a specific statute or statutes that impose the discrimination they allege.”
But the high court also said the legal complaint can be changed and re-filed with the lower court if it specifically cites state laws that are unconstitutional.
“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,” Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath wrote for the majority.
The advocates said the new legal filings would be coming.
“We are on the right side of history here. This is a discrimination case. In other civil rights cases people have not given up, and we won’t,” said James Goetz, an attorney for the couples. “There is just no question, and the court did not hold otherwise, that these statutes are discriminatory.”
He said “people continue to suffer discrimination as the courts move in their deliberative ways.”
The advocates argue the legal rights they seek would not be barred by the voter-approved definition of marriage since they are not seeking specifically the right to marry.
One dissenting justice, however, noted the state is citing the marriage amendment in its legal arguments.
And Justice James Nelson, in a lengthy 109-page dissent, wrote that he thinks the marriage amendment itself unconstitutionally conflicts with fundamental rights. He said the marriage amendment was a religious-based attack meant to demean homosexuals.
“But future generations – indeed, most young people today – will not fear, much less honor, the sexual-orientation taboo,” Nelson wrote. “Indeed, a not-too-distant generation of Montanans will consign today’s decision, the marriage amendment, and the underlying intolerance to the dustbin of history and to the status of a meaningless, shameful, artifact.”