DOMA decision does not change all that much for MT's gay couples

Jun 27, 2013

Jan Donaldson (left) and Mary Anne Guggenheim pose for a picture outside their Helena home Wednesday
Credit Dan Boyce

Montanans are split in their feelings about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA.

The nation’s highest court yesterday threw out a provision denying federal benefits to married gay couples and in a separate decision allowed same-sex marriage to resume in California.

Both were passed with tight 5 to 4 majorities.

Montana’s gay rights advocates are applauding the decisions, although they acknowledge it doesn’t mean much here in the state.

“It’s a joyful day,” said Helena resident Jan Donaldson, who is celebrating her 30th anniversary with her partner Mary Anne Guggenheim this Summer. They’ve often had to deal with the limitations associated with not being in a committed heterosexual relationship. Like when Mary Ann had hip surgery, Jan called the surgeon’s office with questions.

“His assistant refused to talk to me because they didn’t have the appropriate papers in the office to be able to share any medical information with me,” Jan said.

And the Supreme Court’s decision to throw out DOMA doesn’t change that.

"Nothing that the court did affected Montana in any way,” said Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation, a conservative organization opposed to gay marriage. “The decisions were extremely narrow and Montana's marriage amendment continues to be in force and the debate on the issue of same-sex marriage on the national level continues."

Laszloffy argues gay marriage advocates were actually losers in the Supreme Court’s decision, since many were hoping the court would declare all bans on same sex marriage unconstitutional. That didn’t happen, the state’s gay marriage ban remains in place, and Laszloffy believes that’s what most Montanans want, pointing out a nearly 70 percent majority voted for the ban in 2004.

"I think what people realize is the most important thing about marriage is that it provides kids with both a mom and a Dad as a culture, especially here in Montana, we think that's important," he said.

However, this year the Montana Legislature did throw out the state’s ban on homosexual sex. It was a historic move, coming 15 years after that law was declared unconstitutional. Public Policy Director of the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Niki Zupanic, believes even at the state level, public opinion is shifting.

"Things are only moving in one direction on this issue,” she said. “Whether it's legal decisions, legislation, ballot measures, everything is moving in the direction of freedom for couples to be recognized in their relationships, for the freedom that they will eventually marry.”

What’s not fully clear at this point with the Supreme Court’s decision is whether Federal benefits in areas like Medicare, taxes, or social security would be recognized for gay couples who married in a state with gay marriage and then moved to Montana. That’s complicated and depends on the type of benefits the couple is seeking.

Legalizing gay marriage may not yet be in the picture in Montana. But Jan Donaldson and Mary Anne Guggenheim are working for domestic partnership rights. They are the lead plaintiffs in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the state, looking to get some specific benefits extended to same-sex couples. They say they have a lot of work to do, but Mary Ann says she does not have bittersweet feelings.

“Really, none at all, when you get to be my age, late 70s, you realize the perspective of how things often change slowly,” Guggenheim said.

She says, personally, this Summer she and Jan are going to celebrate their 30 years and leave it at that.