Koster will defend law as St. Louis challenges Missouri ban on gay marriages

06/26/2014 10:03 AM

06/26/2014 3:21 PM

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said Thursday that he personally supports gay marriage but will defend a state constitutional ban against it after St. Louis officials issued marriage licenses to four same-sex couples at a City Hall ceremony.

A judge denied Koster’s request Thursday for a temporary restraining order against the gay marriages, but city officials said they won’t issue any more marriage licenses to gay couples — at least until state or federal courts further resolve several pending challenges.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said the four gay-marriage licenses were issued with the intent of triggering a legal test of Missouri’s constitutional prohibition adopted by voters a decade ago. The licenses were issued on the same day that a U.S. appeals court panel in Denver ruled that states cannot prevent gay couples from marrying.

“Cities are strengthened by their families. I want St. Louis to be the sort of diverse and open place in which all families, gay and straight, choose to live, be creative and build businesses,” Slay said. “I can’t think of anything more beautiful. I can’t think of anything more right.”

Koster, a Democrat who is running for governor in 2016, said it is his responsibility to defend Missouri’s laws and that local officials should not be taking actions in conflict with those laws.

“While I personally support the goal of marriage equality, my duty as attorney general is to defend the laws of the state of Missouri,” Koster said in a written statement. “While many people in Missouri have changed their minds regarding marriage equality, Missourians have yet to change their constitution.”

The four couples — six men and two women — were married Wednesday night in Slay’s office in a ceremony presided over by a municipal judge as well as a rabbi and priest. The couples joined Slay and other city officials at a Thursday morning press conference to discuss the move.

“Being recognized as a married couple is so amazing,” said John Durnell, 63, who has been with his partner Richard Eaton, 75, for nearly four decades.

Tod Martin said his marriage to David Gray formalizes a 22-year relationship that began soon after both moved to the city after attending Vanderbilt University

“We’ve seen ourselves as an old married couple for quite some time,” said Martin, deputy chief of staff for Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill. “(The city) helped make that actually a reality last night.”

Slay told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that city officials issued the marriage licenses “to force this issue and to get the law settled” on whether Missouri’s gay marriage ban is legal.

“If we weren’t doing this, no other city in Missouri would,” said Slay, who has three gay siblings, including a brother who got married in New York because he couldn’t in St. Louis.

“He didn’t want to wait,” the mayor said. “He’s happier than he’s ever been in his entire life.”

While denying Koster’s request for a temporary restraining order, St. Luis Circuit Judge Rex Burlison noted that city officials have agreed not to issue more marriage licenses. The judge is to hear arguments at a later date on whether to grant an injunction against the same-sex marriages.

Missouri voters in 2004 approved a state constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman — the first such measure enacted nationally after the Massachusetts Supreme Court permitted gay marriage in that state. The Missouri ballot measure passed with 70 percent of the vote.

Since then, there has been no effort by Republican legislative leaders to reconsider the gay marriage ban. But Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon said in February that it should be put to another vote, and that he would support repealing it.

Nixon’s comments came after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in February seeking to force Missouri to recognize the out-of-state marriages of several same-sex couples.

Last year, Nixon announced that Missouri would accept joint income tax returns from legally married gay couples, mirroring a new policy by the federal Internal Revenue Service.

That prompted a lawsuit from representatives of Baptist and family policy organizations asserting that Nixon’s policy violates Missouri’s constitutional provision recognizing only marriages between men and women. A judge denied a temporary restraining order in April against Nixon’s policy but the case is still pending in Cole County Circuit Court.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday on the St. Louis decision.

On Thursday morning, Kansas City Mayor Sly James tweeted: “4 those asking, StL & KC Govs are totally different. I do not have legal ability to issue marriage licenses. Would if I could #KansasCity”

James said he started getting requests on Twitter to help officiate at local gay marriages after news broke about the ceremonies in St. Louis Mayor Slay’s office. But James said the governments in St. Louis and Kansas City are different, so he has no authority to assist with such a ceremony.

Marriage in Missouri is a county function. While St. Louis operates as an independent municipality, it also performs county functions. That’s not the case in Kansas City.

“You don’t come to City Hall to get a marriage license. You go to Jackson County,” James said Thursday. “I have zero authority when it comes to marriages.”

Still, James said that like Slay, he supports gay marriage.

“But he has a totally different ability than I do,” James said. “I have no ability to do anything about marriage.”

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