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Battle over same-sex marriages in St. Louis headed to court

Battle over same-sex marriages in St. Louis headed to court


ST. LOUIS • Miranda Duschack and Karen Davis were first married in a 2012 spiritual ceremony where they jumped over a broom, an African wedding tradition also used today by some same-sex couples to signify vows that aren’t legally sanctioned.

On Wednesday the couple, who together run an urban farm in south St. Louis, stepped into history on the burgundy carpet of Mayor Francis Slay’s ornate City Hall office by exchanging vows, and were given an official marriage certificate in a ceremony officiated by Municipal Judge Joseph Murphy.

“We’re actually doing this,” said an ecstatic Davis. “Can you believe it?”

As the question of the constitutionality of statewide same-sex marriage bans could soon spill into the marble halls of the U.S. Supreme Court, the city issued three other same-sex marriage licenses Wednesday. But officials will voluntarily stop issuing more as they pledge a court battle over Missouri’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

St. Louis is the first municipality mounting a direct challenge of the state ban. The city, which operates as an independent municipality, also performs county functions.

The four marriage licenses were signed by an emotional and misty-eyed Recorder of Deeds Sharon Quigley Carpenter, and four wedding ceremonies were held in Slay’s office as the smiling mayor snapped cellphone pictures of the couples. Two men who were married Wednesday have been in a committed relationship for 39 years.

“It makes me proud as a citizen and as a mayor,” Slay said.

But the echo of champagne corks popping in the mayor’s office will likely be silenced today with the thud of legal documents as officials get down to less-celebratory business. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, who is charged to enforce the state’s constitution, sued the city on Thursday morning.  

Slay said he informed Koster of the city's action last night.  

Circuit Judge Rex Burlison signed an order where the city agreed to refrain from issuing more marriage licenses while the case is pending.    

Even with the official marriage documents from the city, the validity of the couples’ unions will be in question. Missouri’s constitution recognizes only marriage between a man and woman and bars county recorders from issuing licenses to same-sex couples.

“But, make no mistake about it,” said Slay, “I, and all of us standing here, are doing this to force the issue and to get the law settled for everyone who wants to get married in the state of Missouri.”

Slay added: “If we weren’t doing this, no other city in Missouri would.”

The constitutional same-sex marriage ban was passed by voters in 2004, making Missouri the first state with such a ban as the nation debated the issue of gay rights. Voters in some other states followed suit and approved similar bans.

City officials said they plan to challenge Missouri’s ban all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.

Last year, that court ruled married same-sex couples are entitled to federal benefits, but stopped short of directly ruling on the constitutionality of statewide same-sex marriage bans.

St. Louis’ challenge comes after more than a year and a half of consideration. On Wednesday, Winston E. Calvert, the city’s attorney, issued a letter to Carpenter saying she may “in good faith conclude that same-sex couples who meet all other requirements for marriage are legally entitled to a marriage license because the Missouri laws prohibiting same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.”

Calvert said he believes Missouri’s constitutional amendment violates the U.S. Constitution. The city’s battle to end the ban will start at the Civil Courts building downtown, which is now being lighted at night in a rainbow of colors to mark this weekend’s PrideFest celebration.

Challenges to statewide bans have been cropping up throughout the nation and could be before the Supreme Court as early as next year. On Wednesday, a federal appeals court overturned Utah’s ban on same-sex unions and ruled that states may not deny couples their “fundamental right” to wed.

In St. Louis, Carpenter signed the marriage licenses shortly after 5 p.m., thrusting the four couples into months of court depositions, judicial hearings and publicity.

“As we all know, doors are cracking open everywhere,” Carpenter said.

The three other couples who were given licenses are Bruce Yampolsky and Terry Garrett, both of whom are active in the city’s Democratic politics; David Gray and Tod Martin, who is the deputy chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill; and John Durnell and Richard Eaton, residents of the Soulard neighborhood who have been together for 39 years.

“We hope in 20 years people don’t even think about it,” said Durnell, 63, before the ceremony as dozens of friends packed Slay’s office. “We take our freedoms for granted once we achieve them.”

Eaton, 75, nodded in agreement.

“It’s a big day for us, but a bigger day for other people in the community,” Eaton said.

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Nicholas J.C. Pistor is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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