The Montana Supreme Court on Monday rejected an "overly broad" appeal that sought to provide same-sex couples with the same rights as married opposite-sex couples. However, the court gave the plaintiffs the opportunity to narrow their complaint.
“Three of the justices said they would have granted same-sex couples recognition as domestic partners now. The majority also made clear that the decision to remand the case for additional proceedings in the lower court was based on technical issues, not on the substance of our argument that the Montana Constitution mandates equal treatment of all people,” said ACLU of Montana Legal Director Jon Ellingson.
“They said that while we could not challenge the omission of same-sex couples from all of the statutes involving the rights of married couples in one case, we can challenge those statutes individually. We plan to do just that.”
Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, six same-sex couples sued the state to obtain the protections and benefits provided to married opposite-sex couples, though they were not seeking to have their relationships designated as "marriages." They argued that being excluded from the system of laws that provided protections and benefits to married couples violated the Montana Constitution.
The court noted that the plaintiffs were not seeking to have any particular law declared unconstitutional. Instead, they were seeking to have the court order the state legislature to enact new laws to protects their rights. In a 4-3 decision, the Montana Supreme Court ruled the plaintiff's request would violate the separation of powers and upheld in part a lower court's dismissal of the case.
In a lengthy 109-page dissenting opinion, Justice James Nelson wrote he had "never disagreed more strongly with the Court." He said Montana could not constitutionally "single out unpopular groups for disfavored treatment."
"Our collective frustration and sadness aside, however, if we have learned anything as an evolving species, it is that no government, no religion, no institution, and no political party can long oppress the inviolable dignity and spirit of human beings in their fight for fairness in the courts, access to justice, and equal protection of the laws," Nelson added. "Those are the seminal principles upon which our country was founded, and they are the birthright of every natural person on this planet, without exception."
"Those rights will not be long denied to those suffering the scourge of discrimination and hatred. The committed couples here—and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Montanans everywhere—must never lose sight of the fact that although today’s battle has been lost, the war has not been. They must remain united in defeat because, in the end, they will overcome; they will prevail. Of that, I am absolutely certain," the justice concluded.