May 21, 2014 | by Chris Johnson
Lawsuit filed in Montana seeking marriage equality
Adel Johnson, Sue Hawthorne, Shauna and Nicole Goubeaux, Ben Milano, Chase Weinhandl, Angie and Tonya Rolando, Montana, marriage equality

Adel Johnson and Sue Hawthorne (top left), Shauna and Nicole Goubeaux (top right), Ben Milano and Chase Weinhandl (lower right) and Angie and Tonya Rolando (lower left) are suing Montana for marriage equality (photos courtesy the ACLU).

Amid a flurry of successes in advancing marriage equality, four same-sex couples in Montana entered into the fray on Wednesday by filing a federal lawsuit against their state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

The litigation, Rolando v. Fox, contends Montana law prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying in the state amounts to discrimination — both on the basis of sex and sexual orientation. That discrimination, plaintiffs allege, violates due process and equal protection rights under Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“The paramount significance of marriage to lesbian and gay couples in Montana is no different than it is to different-sex couples,” the complaint states. “Yet, Montana law specifically singles out same-sex couples for exclusion from this important right. This has the effect not only of denying same-sex couples the freedom and dignity afforded to other Montanans, but also the legal protections, duties and benefits that marriage affords under federal and Montana law.”

The four plaintiff couples who filed suit are Angie and Tonya Rolando, who live Great Falls; Shauna and Nicole Goubeaux, who live in Billings; Ben Milano and Chase Weinhandl, who lives in Bozeman; and Sue Hawthorne and Adel Johnson, who live in Helena.

Both Angie and Tonya Rolando have the same last name, but aren’t legally married. The remaining couples in the lawsuit married in other states and are seeking recognition of their union in Montana. Shauna and Nicole Goubeaux married in Iowa, Milano and Weinhandl married in Hawaii; and Hawthorne and Adel Johnson married in Washington State.

In a statement, Shauna Goubeaux said she wants Montana to recognize her marriage to Nicole for the sake of protection for their one-year-old son, whom they adopted when he was an infant.

“We want Aden to grow up knowing that we are a family like any other family,” Shauna Goubeaux said. “Marriage is part of being a family. By being plaintiffs in this case we are showing him his mommies will stand up for what is right and stand up for him.”

The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Montana as well as the private firms Goetz, Gallik & Baldwin P.C. and Morrison & Foerster LLP.

Elizabeth Gill, staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender Project, said the lawsuit enables Montana to join the march of other states proceeding toward — and ultimately winning — marriage equality.

“An amazing change has taken place over the past few years as more Americans embrace the idea that same-sex couples should have the freedom to marry,” Gill said. “It’s time for Montana to join the march toward equality for all loving and committed couples across the country.”

Drawing on the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in the gay juror case known as SmithKline v. Abbott, the complaint contends the U.S. District Court of Montana must strike down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage because precedent dictates laws related to sexual orientation should be subject to heightened scrutiny.

But the complaint also says the ban should be struck down under a lower form of rational basis review because Montana’s ban on same-sex marriage serves no legitimate interest for the state.

[UPDATE: In a statement, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced he supports same-sex marriage and looks forward to when marriage equality will come to his state.

“Montanans cherish our freedom and recognize the individual dignity of every one of us," Bullock said. "The time has come for our state to recognize and celebrate – not discriminate against – two people who love one another, are committed to each other, and want to spend their lives together.]

Now that the Montana lawsuit has been filed, the only states without marriage equality or a marriage equality lawsuit are Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, according to the ACLU.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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