Barbara Shelly

Chris Koster playing it safe on marriage challenge

The fight over the right of same-sex couples to legally marry has reached Missouri’s border. Thanks to a ruling last week by a county judge, Arkansas is the latest state to have its constitutional ban thrown out by a court.

Surely this has not gone unnoticed in the office of Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster. A 2004 voter-approved constitutional amendment limiting recognition of marriage to unions between a man and a woman is currently being challenged by

a lawsuit

in Jackson County Circuit Court. Eight same-sex couples are challenging Missouri’s laws denying legal recognition of their marriages.

At some point, and probably soon, Koster’s office will have to mount a defense of the states laws — or not.

He says he will. “As Attorney General, I cannot pick and choose the portions of our constitution to uphold,” Koster said in a statement. “While I would personally vote to repeal the ban, I have a duty to my oath and to the people of Missouri who adopted the constitutional provision.”

That’s similar to the stance taken by Dustin McDaniel, Arkansas’ Democratic attorney general.

Other attorneys general have gone in the other direction. The top state lawyers in California, Illinois, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Kentucky have all said they won’t defend their state’s bans.

Ellen Rosenblum, Oregon’s attorney general, called her state’s gay marriage ban blatant discrimination and said in a legal brief that “the ban cannot withstand a federal constitutional challenge under any standard of review.”

Koster’s position reflects where Missouri is at the moment and his pursuit of the governor’s office. Attitudes have changed for the better since Missourians approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage with 71 percent of the votes 10 years ago, but they haven’t changed enough to make an ambitious politician feel like he’s on safe ground calling the ban discriminatory and unconstitutional in light of last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling — which it is.

That’s too bad. In speeches to Democratic and progressive groups, Koster has been strong in support of equality for gay and lesbian couples. Playing it safe may provide a smoother path to election as governor, but it denies him a chance to weigh in on the right side of history.