KANSAS CITY • Those standing on the steps in front of the Jackson County Courthouse on Thursday night were filled with hope, even jubilation. Earlier in the day, a judge heard arguments on whether Missouri should recognize marriages of gay couples who were wed legally elsewhere.
“Show me marriage! Show me marriage!” the crowd shouted during a rally supporting same-sex marriage.
Circuit Judge J. Dale Youngs did not rule from the bench, but did promise a quick decision, saying that both parties had made their legal arguments clear in writing long before the hearing.
“My intention,” Youngs said, is to render a decision “as quickly as possible. This issue has been extremely well briefed and well argued. My job is to get everybody down the road.”
That road, he admitted, will only go so far.
“Nothing I say will be the last word,” Youngs said, referring to a likely appeal from the losing side.
Still, gay marriage supporters declared the day a victory by getting the case in front of a judge. In the past year, 40 of 42 cases across the country dealing with same-sex marriage have gone in favor of the plaintiffs. Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., already recognize same-sex marriage.
“This was a great day,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director for the ACLU of Missouri, which served as legal counsel for the couples.
The hearing Thursday lasted about 90 minutes, and Youngs gave each side an opportunity to summarize their written arguments.
Seven of the 10 couples who sued Missouri to have their marriages from other states and countries recognized were in the courtroom, but were not a part of the proceedings. Minutes before the hearing, the ACLU lawyers asked the couples to move to the front of the courtroom to sit in one long row.
The plaintiffs argue that since they were married in other states or countries where same-sex marriages are legal, Missouri should recognize their relationships as well. But standing in the way is language in the state constitution that defines marriage as between one woman and one man. Voters by a wide margin added the amendment in 2004.
Tony Rothert, an ACLU attorney, argued that since marriage is a fundamental right in the U.S., limiting it to opposite sex couples is discrimination.
He said the ban on gay marriage in Missouri is in violation of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution granting equal protection.
Jeremiah Morgan, attorney for the state, argued that a ruling last year by the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, did nothing to “change the sovereign authority of the state.” That ruling allows gay couples who live in states where their marriages are legally recognized to receive the same federal benefits as married opposite-sex couples.
The case before Judge Youngs is not asking for Missouri’s constitutional ban on gay marriage to be overturned, but that the state allow marriages performed legally elsewhere to be recognized. A favorable ruling would validate the marriages of more than 5,400 couples.
Youngs was witty and relaxed from the bench, often stopping the attorneys to ask for clarification on their remarks.
When Morgan said that same-sex marriage recognition was for states to decide and not the federal government, Youngs replied: “Good thing I’m not a federal judge.”
Youngs also asked about the disparity in Missouri recognizing marriages of first cousins and common law marriages legally granted in other states, but not doing the same for gay marriages.
“In each of these instances, it’s always been between a man and a woman,” said Morgan, who works for Attorney General Chris Koster. Koster supports same-sex marriage but has said he has a responsibility to defend Missouri law.
Arlene Zarembka and Zuleyma Tang-Martinez of University City have been a couple for 31 years, marrying nine years ago in Canada.
“I think the judge sounded very impartial,” Tang-Martinez, 69, said. “It’s hard to know what is going to happen.”
Alan Ziegler and LeRoy Fitzwater, both 43, were married in California in 2008. A job transfer landed the couple in St. Louis last year.
“Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but it sounded good for us,” Ziegler said.
The hearing Thursday marked the first of three Missouri cases to challenge the state’s same-sex marriage law.
In June, after two gay couples were denied marriage licenses in Kansas City, the ACLU sued Jackson County, asking a court to declare the ban unconstitutional. The case currently sits in federal court.
Also in June, four couples were married at St. Louis City Hall after then-recorder of deeds Sharon Carpenter issued them licenses. The city immediately agreed to stop issuing more licenses while the matter winds its way through the courts. A hearing on that case is scheduled Monday in St. Louis Circuit Court.
It will be similar in nature to the Kansas City case, seeking summary judgment. It’s an argument that no trial is necessary because all facts are before the court.
Also on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court will begin looking at all the petitions before it, including five same-sex marriage cases, from Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin. It can consider one, combine the cases or set them aside for another time. Should the justices agree to hear any of the cases, it will likely happen early next year.
There are more than 80 cases pending in 31 states that prohibit gay marriages.
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