A federal judge ruled Sunday that Alaska's ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional, paving the way for same-sex couples to begin marrying in the state for the first time. The state quickly said it would appeal the decision by U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess, despite recent higher court rulings striking down similar bans around the country.
"The court finds that Alaska's ban on same-sex marriage and refusal to recognize same sex marriages lawfully entered in other states is unconstitutional as a deprivation of basic due process and equal protection principles under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution," Burgess wrote in a order in the case Hamby v. Parnell, released Sunday.
The Hamby suit was filed in May by five same-sex couples. It challenged the state's constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman, approved by voters in 1998. Both parties in the Hamby case made oral arguments in the case on Friday.
In an email, the state said it will appeal Burgess' ruling.
"As Alaska's governor, I have a duty to defend and uphold the law and the Alaska Constitution," Gov. Sean Parnell said in a press release. "Although the district court today may have been bound by the recent Ninth Circuit panel opinion, the status of that opinion and the law in general in this area is in flux. I will defend our constitution."
Parnell was referring to a ruling last week from a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled to overturn similar marriage bans in Idaho and Nevada. Same-sex marriage advocates said the 9th Circuit ruling would likely lead to the quick overturn of Alaska's ban on gay marriage because the bans were similar and Alaska also falls under the jurisdiction of that court.
Even as the state vowed to appeal the decision, officials with the state's Bureau of Vital Statistics said they would begin accepting applications for same-sex marriage licenses at 8 a.m. on Monday.
"The license application begins the three-day waiting period before the license can be issued. All marriages in Alaska must have the marriage license issued before the ceremony is performed," wrote Phillip Mitchell, head of the Bureau of Vital Statistics. "We expect our office will be busy tomorrow but we will make every effort to help customers as quickly as possible."
Two of the plaintiffs in Hamby vs. Parnell, Courtney Lamb and Stephanie Pearson, said Sunday that they plan to be among the first to apply for a marriage license. The Anchorage medical biller and graphic designer have been a couple for two years.
"We'll go down and file for it tomorrow, and then we'll work on finding somebody to marry us," said Lamb.
Sunday's ruling makes Alaska the 30th state to have full marriage equality, according to Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, a national political action group that has worked toward overturning marriage bans across the country since 2003.
In 1998, Alaska was one of the first states to implement an explicit ban on same-sex marriages when voters approved an amendment to the Alaska Constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
Burgess' order Sunday follows a slew of decisions issued since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Windsor in 2013. That case overturned portions of the Defense of Marriage Act, finding that it violated same-sex couples' rights to equal protection and due process under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
While the Windsor ruling did not address same-sex marriage directly, it has served as a watershed case for the issue, with numerous courts around the country citing it as part of their reasoning to overturn same-sex marriage bans across the U.S. The 9th Circuit did so when it struck down Idaho and Nevada's bans last week, as did Burgess on Sunday.
Burgess found that none of the state's arguments in support of the ban -- including its primary argument that the issue of marriage should fall to voters, not the courts -- were constitutional.
Burgess, who was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush in 2005, wrote in his order that the state offered little evidence supporting the reasoning that the marriage decision falls to the voters. Even if the amendment to the Alaska Constitution was not designed to discriminate, as the state argued, Burgess said that it clearly did.
"By singling out homosexual couples and banning their ability to marry an individual of their choosing, it is impossible to assert that all Alaskans are equal under the state's laws," Burgess wrote.
Jim Minnery, the head of Alaska Family Action group, which opposes same-sex marriage, said Sunday that he viewed the judge's decision as a "subversion of the democratic process."
"What this really comes across as is not so much the people's constitution as individuals in black robes," Minnery said. "That's disconcerting to a lot of us."
A speedy decision
Caitlin Shortell, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case, said Burgess was thorough in his decision, referencing cases beyond the scope of what she and attorneys Allison Mendel and Heather Gardner argued in their original motion.
"The court was clearly very careful in making the decision," Shortell said.
Burgess said after oral arguments Friday that he intended to make his decision soon, but few expected a decision before Monday. Wolfson, with Freedom to Marry, said Burgess' decision to issue the ruling on a Sunday shows the judge felt strongly about taking quick action on the issue.
"It's gratifying to see a judge see the urgency in acting so quickly," he said in a phone interview. "Alaska adds to the clear momentum and underscores the clear urgency of ending this discrimination nationwide without delay."
Meanwhile, marriage advocates expressed frustration in the state's decision to appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court issued an emergency order Friday -- coinciding with the end of Alaska's oral arguments -- denying Idaho's stay on the 9th Circuit's ruling, which had temporarily halted marriages in that state. Marriages immediately resumed there.
"(The state of Alaska) absolutely has no leg to stand on," said ACLU Executive Director Joshua Decker. "Alaska's ban is a dead letter and the governor is just wasting taxpayer dollars."
Shortell wished the state "good luck" in its efforts.
"We just went through this," she said. "They can try (to appeal) but it's not gonna work."
Elation and celebration
Matt Hamby, the lead plaintiff in the case, said he moved to Alaska in the late 1990s, around the time that voters in the state passed the constitutional amendment.
"When the amendment came down I had just moved here and I felt a little betrayed," he said. "I felt like it was kind of a mean-spirited thing to do."
Still, he stayed in Alaska and met his husband, a salmon biologist, at an Anchorage pub. The two were married in Banff, Alberta.They are active outdoorsmen, volunteering with search and rescue and training avalanche rescue dogs. Not having their marriage recognized in the state they called home felt wrong, Hamby said.
"I never considered leaving," Hamby said. "But it sure didn't make me feel welcome as a contributing citizen."
Hamby was helping a friend paint a house when he got the voicemail from his attorney Sunday afternoon about the judge's decision.
"I was covered in paint," he said. "And overjoyed."
The marriage ruling would have an immediate impact, said Chris Laborde and Susan Tow, two plaintiffs in the lawsuit who live in Anchorage but were married in Maryland.
With recognition as a married couple, concerns about one spouse being hospitalized and unable to see or care for the other would be immediately quelled. If one died, the other would take on survivor benefits. Raising two sons together would feel less legally tenuous and complicated, Laborde said.
As Sunday evening wore on and the news spread, Mad Myrna's, a gathering spot on the edge of downtown Anchorage, swelled with an impromptu gathering that spanned generations celebrating the decision. There was one couple in matching T-shirts who'd been together for 37 years. And there were couples who hadn't been alive nearly that long.
Issa Braman and Jaime Spatrisano, who married this summer in Seattle seven years after meeting on a college rugby team, talked about driving cross-country through a patchwork of states that viewed their marriage in different terms.
"We'd be married in one state and then not married in another," Braman said. She expected her home state of Michigan to legalize same-sex marriage first. Today's ruling was a happy shock: She walked into her home carrying boxes of groceries from Costco and told her wife, Spatrisano, who burst into tears.
"I said, Jaime, you're my actual wife," she said.
Nelson Freelen and her wife Deborah Freelen stood by the bar, surrounded by friends.
Deborah Freelen summarized the mood of the evening simply as "woo-hoo!"
The couple met at Mad Myrna's through mutual friends nearly a decade ago. They married in Vancouver, B.C. three years ago. Nelson Freelen, nattily dressed in a sweater vest and bowtie for the occasion, said she was of a generation that didn't expect to see her relationship recognized by the law in her lifetime. Sunday's news, which she first saw on Facebook, hadn't really sunk in.
"A lot of us thought we'd never see this day," she said. "We're still waiting for something to go wrong."
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