The playbook for getting same-sex marriages legally recognized in Missouri was written long before a lawsuit was filed Wednesday in the spotlight of statewide publicity.
It is a playbook that’s already in action in states similar to Missouri, with a series of rapid-fire court rulings.
And it’s born of a strategy that’s more about eroding state constitutional bans on same-sex marriage than about obliterating them.
At least for now.
A lawsuit filed Wednesday asks a circuit judge in Kansas City to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples in Missouri who were wed in other states and countries where the unions are legal. But it is not asking the judge to declare unconstitutional the ban voters approved in 2004.
“Plaintiffs are already legally married, having wed in other jurisdictions, but are treated as legal strangers in their home state,” reads the suit filed by the ACLU of Missouri on behalf of eight gay couples, including five from the St. Louis area.
“Like other couples who have made a lifetime commitment to each other, the plaintiff couples are spouses in every sense, except that Missouri law says their marriages are not honored here.”
The lawsuit follows a string of similar legal actions across the country since June, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, stating that the federal government must recognize legal marriages between those of same-sex couples.
That decision stopped short of saying that gay marriage should be legal in every state, although in a separate ruling the same day, the country’s high court cleared the way for same-sex marriages to continue in California, after a lengthy legal battle.
As the Missouri lawsuit was formally announced on Wednesday, a federal judge ruled the same day that Kentucky must recognize same-sex marriages granted in other states where they are legal.
“It is clear that Kentucky’s laws treat gay and lesbian persons differently in a way that demeans them,” wrote U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush.
In Oklahoma and Utah, federal judges have gone even further, striking down same-sex marriage bans in those states. However, both decisions are on appeal. A ruling in Virginia is expected soon. The state’s new attorney general there has joined the couples who are seeking to have the ban struck down.
But the legal strategy that is behind the Missouri lawsuit may bear more resemblance to what is happening in states such as Ohio.
In that state, a lawsuit was filed Monday seeking a court order to force that state to recognize same-sex marriages so that both names could appear on birth certificates. The plaintiffs hope to follow a successful similar suit from last year, when a judge ruled that the state must recognize gay unions solely for the purpose of allowing a spouse’s name to appear as a survivor on a death certificate.
That ruling also is on appeal.
The attorney for both Ohio cases said it made more sense to slowly chip away at that state’s same-sex marriage ban, offering the U.S. Supreme Court a wider variety of legal arguments to consider when appeals from various states ultimately reach the justices.
The ACLU of Missouri held four news conferences across the state on Wednesday to formally announce its lawsuit and to introduce the couples named as plaintiffs. The suit also includes a short biography of each couple.
At the St. Louis news conference, Patricia Webb said the constitutional ban “is an affront to the sanctity of our union.” She and her wife, Adria, were married in Iowa nearly four years ago.
Arlene Zarembka and Zuleyma Tang-Martinez showed up with their marriage license in a gold frame. The women have been together for 31 years, and married nine years ago in Canada.
Being recognized as a legally married couple in Missouri “is long past due,” Zarembka said.
Tony Rothert, legal director for the ACLU of Missouri, said he was confident voters “did not intend the harm it caused these couples” when they voted for the constitutional ban 10 years ago.
Gay rights proponents estimate at least 50 suits challenging same-sex marriage bans are in various stages in the legal system, and one or more of them could ultimately clear the path for nationwide acceptance.
“But we can no longer wait for events outside Missouri to control what happens within Missouri,” Rothert said. Based on cases in other states, he estimates the suit filed Wednesday will be before the Missouri Supreme Court within a year.
Rothert said the federal ACLU organization had a “50-state strategy” to topple constitutional bans. “But we’re not ready to discuss it today,” he said.