Government & Politics

Court ruling makes same-sex marriages more likely in Kansas, perhaps Missouri

Aimee McCarter (left) and Jennifer Kozushko talked to the media after they were refused a marriage license Monday at the Sedgwick County Courthouse in Wichita. Earlier Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear appeals from five states seeking to prohibit same-sex marriages, a decision that could clear the way for such unions in Kansas.
Aimee McCarter (left) and Jennifer Kozushko talked to the media after they were refused a marriage license Monday at the Sedgwick County Courthouse in Wichita. Earlier Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear appeals from five states seeking to prohibit same-sex marriages, a decision that could clear the way for such unions in Kansas. The Associated Press

The laws banning the marriage of same-sex couples continue to crumble.

In a series of orders made public on the first day of its term, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up same-sex marriage cases from five states, effectively requiring those states to allow the unions.

But legal experts said the decision probably applies to six additional states, including Kansas. They predicted that the state’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage would soon disappear.

“This is almost over,” said Tom Witt, the executive director of the Kansas Equality Coalition, a group that supports same-sex unions.

Same-sex marriage ceremonies began within hours in some of the states directly affected by the high court’s ruling.

But not, apparently, in Kansas. By late afternoon Monday, court clerks in Johnson and Wyandotte counties said no same-sex couples had requested marriage licenses.

Cristel Heffron said she applied for a license Monday afternoon in Wichita to marry Darla Heffron. Cristel Heffron said she was denied because a Sedgwick County judge wanted a formal order first. The couple wed in Hawaii in 2013.

“It was emotional,” she said. “I did almost cry when they denied it.”

At least two other couples said they unsuccessfully sought marriage licenses Monday in Sedgwick County.

Same-sex marriage supporters said they may challenge license denials in the state. A lawsuit will come quickly, said Doug Bonney of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.

“The cases … make it clear that laws like Kansas’ are unconstitutional,” he said.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt called the high court action “disappointing” and said he will deal with any litigation “as it may come.”

“No court has squarely decided whether the Kansas Constitution’s prohibition on same-sex marriage — adopted by voters less than a decade ago — is invalid,” Schmidt, a Republican, said in a statement.

The court’s decision came less than a week after a Jackson County judge said Missouri must recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other states. On Monday, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat, said he would not appeal that decision.

But Monday’s Supreme Court action, issued without comment and lacking the weight of a formal ruling, does not directly clear the way for same-sex marriages in Missouri. The state is in a different judicial circuit than Kansas and the other states on Monday’s docket.

Same-sex marriage supporters said the tide is with them.

“It’s a joyous day,” wrote Adam Polaski on a website called Freedom to Marry.

David Brown, a Lawrence lawyer suing Kansas in state court to change same-sex marriage regulations, said “we’re obviously pleased by the decision.”

The view was not universal.

The board of directors of the Kansas Family Policy Council said in an emailed statement that “marriage has always been, and will always be, between a man and a woman. No court can change that fundamental truth.”

Steve Brunk, a Republican state representative from Wichita, said he had not heard details of court’s order, but the Kansas Constitution still prohibits same-sex marriage.

“The more traditional form of marriage is what’s already been defined in our (state) constitution,” he said. “Until something occurs to change that, we don’t have any reason to change or do anything different.

“Do I expect that to continue to be challenged? Yes,” he said.

More than 4,000 same-sex couples live together in Kansas, according to the Williams Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles law school.

The cases affecting same-sex marriage in Kansas came from Utah and Oklahoma. A federal judge in Utah struck down that state’s same-sex marriage prohibition, but the order was delayed pending a final ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.

And the court’s attitude toward same-sex unions may be increasingly clear, experts said. In 2013, it struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which had denied federal recognition of same-sex marriages performed in states where it was legal.

Lower courts have since used reasoning from that decision to clear the way for same-sex marriages. Monday’s news does not make those unions legal everywhere, but scholars said the refusal to hear the state cases may reflect a consensus among the justices that laws banning same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.

And, they pointed out, the court would clearly understand Monday’s action expands the right for same-sex couples to marry. They said it is unlikely that those judges would later reverse themselves and uphold same-sex marriage prohibitions.

“Few serious observers would predict that (the news the high court) will reverse the national trend — both in public opinion and in the courts — that profoundly favors marriage equality,” wrote Suzanne Goldberg, a law professor at Columbia University.

At the same time, some supporters of same-sex marriage expressed disappointment that the high court declined to use the cases to decide the question of marriage equality once and for all.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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