HELENA, Mont. — The Montana Supreme Court on Monday upheld a lower court’s decision to reject an “overly broad” request that same-sex couples receive the same protections and benefits as married heterosexual couples.
In a 4-3 decision, the Court sided with Helena, Mont., District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock when he dismissed the suit in April 2011.
Sherlock had ruled that, based in part on a 2004 voter-approved amendment that defined marriage in Montana as between a man and a woman, spousal benefits in the state are limited by definition to opposite sex married couples.
On Monday, a majority of the state’s high court upheld that decision, reported The Missoulian.
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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 suit, filed in July 2010 by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of seven gay couples in Montana, said the state failed to offer legal protections to same-sex couples and their families.
“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. If we have to go back step by step and prove it statute by statute, that is what we will do.”
Writing in dissent, State Supreme Court Justice James Nelson, pointed out that Montana’s marriage amendment itself unconstitutionally conflicts with fundamental rights, stating that he believes the marriage amendment was a religious-based attack meant to demean homosexuals.
“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,” wrote Nelson.
Anti-gay advocates however were pleased by today’s ruling.
“The people of Montana believed in traditional marriage when they passed the Montana marriage amendment, and they’re not willing to consider any laws that will weaken marriage,” said Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation and author of the marriage amendment.
Among the rights the couples were seeking included inheritance rights, and the ability to make burial decisions and receive workers compensation death benefits; the right to file joint tax returns, claim spousal tax exemptions or take property tax benefits; the right to make health care decisions, and legal protection in cases of separation and divorce, including children’s custody and support.