After last year’s legislative session, which saw high-profile bills on domestic partnerships and marriage equality introduced but fail, Wyoming proponents decided to turn to the courts next.
“We thought, what’s the quickest way to get equality for same-sex couples?” recalled Jeran Artery, executive director of Wyoming Equality. “Do we continue to pursue it through legislative means? I think we could get there through the Legislature, but of course it would take some time.”
Instead, the gay rights advocacy group has spent the past year putting together a lawsuit against Gov. Matt Mead and other officials in an attempt to get Wyoming to recognize gay marriage. Under state law, marriage is between one man and one woman.
Wyoming Equality and four gay couples filed the lawsuit in Laramie County District Court last Wednesday. Two of the couples were wed outside Wyoming and the other two want to legally get married in the “Equality State.”
Artery said the first few states to have marriage equality did so through litigation, which prompted a wave of legislative action.
“It’s never easy no matter where it starts,” he said. “Unfortunately we’ve seen this become a Democrat vs. Republican thing, so states that had big Democratic majorities were able to pass it in their legislatures. We need to get away from it [as a partisan political issue] and start viewing it as right vs. wrong.”
Now, Wyoming finds itself as part of a new wave of litigation.
“Things are moving very quickly,” Artery said. “Earlier this week a lot of data was released about attitudes on same-sex marriage. It showed 59 percent of Americans support marriage equality. Just like the rest of the country, attitudes, hearts and minds are changing.”
The director said his organization “encourages people to come out of the closet, because it’s hard to discriminate against people you love. It’s forcing a conversation to take place that says why would I not want them to have all the same rights and privileges with marriage – and sometimes struggle – that we have.”
Artery said President Barack Obama’s support for same-sex marriage “is huge.”
“How fantastic it is to have the first United States president say, ‘I support this community. I want them to have equal rights in every aspect of their lives as an American citizen,’” he noted. “The president is not the most popular political figure, but for a lot of us his support has made a life-changing difference.”
The local attorney for the plaintiffs is Tracy Zubrod. In the U.S., it’s the National Center of Lesbian Rights.
“We’re very excited to have both of them representing us,” Artery said. “This is the culmination of a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”
At a news conference on Thursday, Mead, the lead defendant as the state’s chief executive, said he personally believes that marriage is between a man and a woman.
The governor said it’s the attorney general’s duty to defend the law as it is written in Wyoming. After losing a lawsuit the state filed against the Affordable Care Act, as well as being a defendant in a suit won by Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill, he will not hazard a guess about what will happen with this legal action over marriage equality.
“My recent track record is not that great,” he said.
Wyoming Equality and the four gay couples who filed the suit were probably right in going to court instead of waiting for lawmakers to act. During the budget session, a bill sponsored by Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) to include same-sex couples in the state’s definition of marriage failed to get enough votes to be introduced.
It wasn’t long ago that GOP legislative leaders vowed that pro-gay legislation would never be heard on the floor of the Wyoming House. With successes in courts on a frequent basis now, it’s worth getting this case into the judicial pipeline right away instead of waiting for one of the most conservative legislatures in the country to change its collective mind.