Updated: 10:00 p.m. MST
BILLINGS, Mont. — As they stood linking arms and holding bouquets, Linda Gryczan and Constance Enzweiler of Helena married Thursday after waiting 31 years.
They were the first same-sex couple in the city to legally wed after a federal judge overturned Montana’s ban on same-sex marriage the day before.
“We’ve been married for 31 years in our hearts. The next 31 we’ll be married in the state,” Gryczan said.
Gryczan has a history with Montana gay rights issues. She was the lead plaintiff in a 1995 lawsuit challenging a separate state law that made gay sex illegal. That led to the unanimous 1997 Montana Supreme Court decision that ruled the law unconstitutional.
She had kind words Thursday for two plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to Wednesday’s ruling on the voter-approved ban. Adel Johnson and Sue Hawthorne were married in Washington state but came to the courthouse to celebrate.
“Thank you, thank you, for sticking your necks out,” Gryczan told them.
Former Montana Supreme Court Justice James C. Nelson married Gryczan and Enzweiler and said he supports the ruling by U.S. District Judge Brian Morris to throw out the ban, calling it a stain on the state’s constitution.
“I can’t tell you how big a decision that is,” he said. “It basically says that gay people have the same rights as everybody else, as they always should have.”
Statewide, 47 same-sex couples from 13 counties received marriage licenses Thursday, said Jon Ebelt with the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.
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For Paul, a 28-year-old legal assistant, the occasion marked the realization of a dream of getting married in her home state.
“I’m a super Montanan. That’s a big part of who I am. The prospect of getting married somewhere else was upsetting,” she said.
Montana Attorney General Tim Fox is appealing the ruling, but won’t seek an immediate stay to block same-sex marriages while the case is pending. His spokesman, John Barnes, said the state was waiting for a San Francisco-based federal appeals court to set a schedule for the case.
Some couples said they were eager to say their vows in case Fox’s appeal prevails.
Danielle Egnew, a 45-year-old Billings musician, said she and Rebecca Douglas, 44, wanted to marry “in a positive legal climate.” She said the two already have a date for a larger ceremony — Sept. 15 — but were exchanging vows Thursday to be safe.
Montana, Kansas and South Carolina have continued their legal fight against gay marriage despite rulings in favor of the practice from federal appeals courts that oversee them.
In South Carolina, Republican Attorney General Alan Wilson said he would fight to uphold the state’s constitutional ban even though the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday denied his emergency request to block gay marriages being performed there.
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Wilson noted the nation’s top court has not yet resolved conflicting rulings by federal appeals courts. He said a decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding gay marriage bans in several Midwest states means the matter likely will go to the high court.
Amy Wagner, 56, and Karen Langebeck, 48, of Livingston were among the first Montana couples to get their license after spending 22 years together.
“Being able to get married and introduce Karen as my wife — that’s a big deal,” Wagner said. “Now I have a way to describe this relationship that everybody understands.”
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