HELENA - Riding the wave of recent court rulings that have legalized same-sex marriages in several states, four Montana couples filed a lawsuit Wednesday asking a federal judge to overturn the state's ban on gay marriage.
“This is a historic day,” said Jim Taylor, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, at a news conference here Wednesday afternoon. “We think that the time for this case is definitely now.”
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Great Falls by four same-sex couples from across Montana. The couples are Ben Milano, 30, and Chase Weinhandl, 29, of Bozeman; Shauna Goubeaux, 43, and Nicole Goubeaux, 35, of Billings; Sue Hawthorne, 49, and Adel Johnson, 44, of Helena; and Angie Rolando, 37, and Tonya Rolando, 33, of Great Falls.
Three of the four couples have been married in other states, but their marriages aren't recognized in Montana.
“We are all in loving and committed relationships and want to solidify our relationships through marriage,” said Angie Rolando.
The suit is filed against Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, Department of Revenue Director Mike Kadas and Cascade County Clerk of Court Faye McWilliams.
Fox will fight for the ban, his spokesman John Barnes said Wednesday.
“Attorney General Fox will continue to defend Montana's marriage amendment vigorously,” Barnes said.
The constitutional ban on same-sex marriage was established in Montana in 2004 after 67 percent of voters passed a constitutional initiative that defined legal marriage as only between a man and a woman.
“Montana's exclusion of same-sex couples from the institution of marriage and all that marriage signifies and bestows contrasts sharply with the state's long history of respect for individual liberty,” the suit says.
Barring same-sex marriage denies couples of important protections and rights under Montana laws, the suit argues. Among those rights listed in the lawsuit are laws protecting spousal finances, legal recognition for parents, caretaking decisions in times of disaster or death, and certain tax deductions and worker's compensation benefits only available to spouses.
The suit goes on to argue that denying same-sex couples marriage reinforces the view held by some that family bonds uniting same-sex parents and their children are less enduring or meaningful than those of different-sex parents and their kids.
Gov. Steve Bullock praised the litigants in the suit against the state.
“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 wanted to spend their lives together,” Bullock wrote in a statement.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester also released a statement supporting the couples in the federal lawsuit.
“Montanans believe in the right to make a good life for their families, and denying some couples the right to marry denies them happiness and equal protection under the law,” Tester said. “It's time our laws reflect our values.”
U.S. Sen. John Walsh also showed his support of the lawsuit.
“No government should stand between two adults who are committed to each other,” Walsh wrote on his Facebook page. “After nearly 30 years together, Janet and I understand how important it is to protect this freedom for all Montanans.”
Montana Rep. Steve Daines did not issue a public statement Wednesday.
The Montana Family Foundation said in a statement Wednesday that the ACLU is asking a judge to throw out the votes of almost 300,000 Montanans.
“The people of the state of Montana spoke clearly when they passed the amendment with almost 70 percent of the vote,” said Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation. “They believe in marriage, they believe in family and they believe that marriage between a man and a woman is what's best for kids.”
All told, 19 states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriages. In less than a year since the Supreme Court granted federal recognition to married couples, federal judges have struck down marriage bans in nine states: Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and Virginia.
The Montana lawsuit comes just a day after a federal judge in Pennsylvania struck down that state's ban on same-sex marriage, and two days after an Oregon judge did the same.
“The tide of history has risen quickly,” said ACLU of Montana Director Scott Crichton.
Until Wednesday, Montana was one of only three states, including North Dakota and South Dakota, that had no such lawsuits challenging their same-sex marriage bans.
In addition to Taylor, attorneys for the plaintiffs include Jim Goetz and Benjamin Alke of Bozeman.
A lawsuit seeking similar protections for domestic partners is ongoing. That lawsuit, originally filed in 2010 and amended last year, is slated to go to trial before a Lewis and Clark County judge in December.
Plaintiffs in that suit include Bozeman couples Mary Leslie and Stacey Haugland, and Mike Long and Rich Parker.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.