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Judge strikes down Idaho's same-sex marriage ban

Published May 14, 2014 7:45 am

Court • The state must start issuing licenses on Friday.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Boise • Gay and lesbian couples in Idaho could start getting married as soon as Friday after a judge ruled the state's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Magistrate Judge Candy Dale wrote in her decision Tuesday evening that Idaho's laws barring same-sex marriage unconstitutionally deny gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry.

Dale said the state must issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples starting at 9 a.m. Friday.

"The Plaintiffs are entitled to extraordinary remedies because of their extraordinary injuries," Dale wrote, saying same-sex couples in Idaho have been denied the economic, emotional and spiritual benefits of marriage.

"Plaintiffs suffer these injuries not because they are unqualified to marry, start a family, or grow old together, but because of who they are and whom they love," she wrote.

However, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter already has said he intends to appeal the case, meaning an appellate court could still put the weddings on hold.

"I am firmly committed to upholding the will of the people and defending our Constitution," Otter said.

The ruling comes as Utah awaits a decision from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals on its same-sex marriage ban, which was stricken down in December by U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby. Shelby held that the law demeans same-sex couples "for no rational reason."

Dale said marriage works a fundamental change on the lives of all who experience it, and it holds immense personal and spiritual significance.

"This case asks a basic and enduring question about the essence of American government: Whether the will of the majority, based as it often is on sincere beliefs and democratic consensus, may trump the rights of a minority?" the judge wrote.

Idaho's laws wrongly stigmatize gay and lesbian couples and relegate their families to second-class status without sufficient reason, she said.

But it's not just the immense significance of marriage as a ceremonial right that is at issue in the ruling, Dale noted. It's also the many ways a legal marriage affects the daily life of a spouse.

"From the deathbed to the tax form, property rights to parental rights, the witness stand to the probate court, the legal status of 'spouse' provides unique and undeniably important protections," Dale wrote.

Still, she built in a three-day delay in the ruling, apparently in response to a request from the governor.

Otter cited the state's constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

"In 2006, the people of Idaho exercised their fundamental right, reaffirming that marriage is the union of a man and a woman," he said in a statement. "Today's decision, while disappointing, is a small setback in a long-term battle that will end at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said he would consult with the governor on the state's appeal.

Four Idaho couples in November filed the lawsuit against the governor and Ada County Clerk Chris Rich challenging the marriage ban. The couples are Sue Latta and Traci Ehlers; Lori and Sharene Watsen; Shelia Robertson and Andrea Altmayer; and Amber Beierle and Rachael Robertson.

Latta and Ehlers married in 2008 in California, and the Watsens married in 2011 in New York. Both couples have children and say Idaho wrongly treats Ehlers as a legal stranger to her grandchildren and requires Lori Watsen to obtain a new power of attorney every six months so she can have legal authority to consent to medical treatment for her son.

"We won," Latta said, holding the hand of her wife, Traci Ehlers.

The couple spoke on the steps of the federal courthouse Tuesday evening, surrounded by their friends and family as well as their attorneys and the three other plaintiff couples.

"I think we're going to go celebrate," Ehlers said.

Beierle and Rachael Robertson of Boise said they would be back at the courthouse Friday morning to get a marriage license.

"The first person I called when I got the news was my mom, and she said, 'I'm so proud of you Amby,'" Beierle said, holding back tears. "I don't think people understand what that means to native Idahoans who love this state and want to stay in this state but who want to be heard. It feels amazing."

Their attorney, Deborah Ferguson, said the ruling recognized that the families are part of Idaho's community and that they deserved the same protections and respect as other families.

"The court's ruling is a victory not only for the courageous couples who brought this case, but for everyone who cares about freedom and fairness," Ferguson said in a statement.

Restore Our Humanity, the group backing the legal fight against Utah's ban, applauded Dale's decision.

"These marriage equality bans are falling left, right and center," said group spokesman Matthew Spencer. "We stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community in Idaho, and we're proud to see them pressing forward."

A ruling on Utah's appeal is expected any day. Since Shelby's ruling in December, federal courts have overturned same-sex marriage bans in 10 other states. Other states' bans have been overturned by state judges.

"Last summer, the [U.S.] Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act because it humiliates tens of thousands of children of same-sex couples, and you don't need to be a lawyer to understand what that means," said Cliff Rosky, University of Utah law professor and chairman of the board for Equality Utah. "The thing that gets lost in all this talk of states' rights ... is that the children neither know nor care whether their parents are being harmed by the federal government or the state government. They just know that their parents are being harmed and that they're being harmed."