A federal judge struck down Wyoming’s ban on same-sex marriage late Friday afternoon, and Gov. Matt Mead threw in the towel when he announced the state will not appeal the decision.
While gay couples and their supporters celebrated throughout the state, Mead’s office issued a news release that quoted the governor saying, “While this is not the result I and others would have hoped, I recognize people have different points of view and I hope all citizens agree, we are bound by the law.” Meanwhile, according the the Casper Star Tribune, Travis Gray and Dirk Andrews of Casper, who have been together ten years and were engaged last year, were the first couple to apply for a license in Natrona County.
Initially, it appeared that gay couples seeking marriage licenses would have to wait until up to 5 p.m. Thursday. U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl stayed his landmark order until then to allow time for the defendants to appeal. Now, it’s clear no one will appeal.
A day after hearing the federal case, which was filed by four same-sex couples and the civil rights group Wyoming Equality, Skavdahl issued a 16-page order in favor of the plaintiffs. They sought a temporary injunction that would allow county clerks to issue the marriage licenses immediately, as has been done recently in other states in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Prior to Mead’s announcment, an attorney for one of the defendants, Laramie County Clerk Debra Lathrop, announced that she will not appeal.
“When the word came today, it was just elation and excitement beyond belief,” said Jeran Artery, chairman of Wyoming Equality. “I’m glad my office door was closed and the drapes were drawn, because I kind of did my ‘Happy Dance,’ and nobody needed to witness that.”
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeals of five states whose gay marriage bans were overturned by lower courts. Two of the states, Utah and Oklahoma, are in the 10th Circuit, as is Wyoming.
But while other states followed the decision and immediately began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Mead announced the state would continue defending its ban in a lawsuit filed last March. The governor has been a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage, citing personal religious reasons. He believes a legal marriage is only between a man and a woman.
On Thursday, the state of Wyoming didn’t mount much of a defense. Attorneys didn’t present any evidence at the hearing, didn’t call any witnesses, and the legal team didn’t even cross-examine the only person called by the plaintiffs.
The state’s lead attorney, Jared Crecelius, even acknowledged that the plaintiffs — four same-sex couples and a group, Wyoming Equality — would likely win if the case went to trial.
So what did the state actually do to follow Gov. Matt Mead’s order to try to keep Wyoming’s same-sex marriage ban intact?
It asked for more time to make its case, so it could appeal any negative ruling to the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals or U.S. Supreme Court. That’s not quite as lame as a student’s excuse that a dog ate his homework, but it’s not really much better.
Skavdahl asked if the state could still appeal the case to the 10th Circuit if he granted the injunction right then. Crecelius admitted that it could.
The judge decided to review the case instead of making an immediate ruling, but he imposed a deadline on himself to have his written order issued by 5 p.m. Monday, Oct. 20. But Skavdahl issued the order around 3 p.m. Friday.
Skavdahl began the hearing by telling the packed courtroom of about 80 people, “This is a court of law, not a court of emotion.”
Tom Stoever Jr., lead counsel for the plaintiffs, told the judge Wyoming is bound to follow the decisions of the 10th Circuit. He argued that the plaintiffs would suffer “irreparable harm” if denied the constitutional right to marry and be treated equally to all married couples.
“Our clients do not have the legal protections that [opposite-sex] married people take for granted,” said Stoever, who ticked off a list of things same-sex couples cannot do under the ban, including having the right to have a worker’s spouse covered by their insurance policy, and make health care decisions for their spouse.
“They are at the mercy of people outside the relationship to make decisions that are harmful to them,” he added.
In granting the injunctive relief, Skavdahl said the state is bound by the 10th Circuit’s finding that gay marriage bans violate the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He also ruled the plaintiffs would be irreparably harmed by not being treated the same as opposite-sex couples who can marry.
County clerks, Stoever said, are looking for some direction from the court before issuing marriage licenses to gay couples who request one. The officials are subject to penalties, including jail time, for violating the ban as long as it is in place.
Laramie County Clerk Debra Lathrop, who testified via video Thursday from Cheyenne, said the same-sex couples whose marriage license requests she rejected meet all other qualifications to be issued a license.
Bern Haggerty, Laramie County deputy attorney, had no objection to the court offering immediate relief to the gay and lesbian couples and noted Lathop was prepared to issue the marriage licenses as soon as the court ruled.
Skavdahl expressed some concern about whether the court was being asked to exceed its authority. “By the stroke of a pen, you’re asking me to eradicate a state law,” he said.
“It seems a little hasty,” argued Crecelius , who noted that while two states’ gay marriage bans were overturned by the 10th Circuit, in another circuit, a lower court ruled that “marriage is not a fundamental right.”
The defense attorney said if temporary injunctive relief was ordered and marriage licenses were issued, it could result in a variety of future complications, including estate plans and child custody, if a full hearing of the 10th Circuit of the Supreme Court ultimately rules in favor of Wyoming’s same-sex marriage ban.
But in his ruling, Skavdahl wrote, “The record in this case is utterly devoid of anything beyond conjecture and speculation supporting state’s defendants’ claims that the state will suffer a ‘severe impact’ and a ‘profound change to the state’s and the local authorities’ administration of government.'”
At the hearing, Crecelius asked the judge to give the attorney general’s office additional time to research the law. Skavdahl, though, apparently considered it a weak request, and pointed out the state has had the ability to do such research since June.
In his order, the federal judge said the plaintiffs “made a strong showing that they are substantially likely to succeed on the merits of their claim.”
Artery called it “a great day for the Equality State.”
“I’ve never been so proud to be a Wyomingite,” he added. “I’ve been talking with friends on the phone and on Facebook about what it means for them as far as justice and equality and freedom. It’s tremendously exciting.”
The chairman said he is not sure how many same-sex couples will apply for marriage licenses, but he’s sure many are already making plans for ceremonies. He said the UCLA WIlliam Institute issued a study recently that estimated more than 300 same-sex couples in Wyoming would get married the first year it was legal.
Artery said victory celebrations are planned in Cheyenne, Casper and Jackson Hole next Tuesday.
“A lot of us hoped we’d see this day sooner rather than later, and it happened quickly after the Supreme Court’s action,” he noted. “It makes my heart smile.”
Not everyone in Wyoming felt the same way. Rep. Gerald Gay (R-Casper) told Casper Star-Tribune reporter Laura Hancock on Friday that he does not view marriage as a fundamental right.
“There are other arguments to this,” the conservative lawmaker told Hancock, as reported on the newspaper’s website, trib.com. “If you can marry somebody of the same sex, why is the government restricting marriage between first cousins? Why isn’t marriage restrictions applied to polygamy? It grows a lot of arms and legs when you start calling marriage a right and not a privilege.
“We’ll have to weed through all of that and see that we don’t open the door to Pandora’s box,” Gay concluded. Polygamy, of course, is against the law, despite Gay’s assertion that it’s not restricted.
In 2011, the Republican asked his House colleagues to quit referring to homosexuals as “gay,” because it’s his family’s name and he resents it. Instead, he wants them to say “homosexual” or “sodomite.”
“Calling it by my last name doesn’t change that it’s sin,” the Star-Tribune quoted Gay at the time. “The first clue that something is up is when you have to change what you call something.”
Gay is running for re-election in House District 36. His Democratic opponent, Casper attorney Eric Nelson, supports gay marriage.