Boise couples sue to overturn ban on same-sex marriage

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comNovember 8, 2013 

The plaintiffs argue that Idaho's constitution and statutes barring same-sex marriage for couples married legally in other states violate the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of equal protection and due process. The unmarried couples say they "have been harmed by Idaho's refusal to allow them" to marry.

The case, supported by the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, was filed Friday in U.S. District Court against Gov. Butch Otter and Ada County Clerk/Auditor/Recorder Chris Rich.

Bob Cooper, spokesman for Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, said any comment would be premature because the state hadn't been officially served.

"Marriage is the dominion of the states," Otter said in an email quoted by Boise State Radio. "This is an issue of state sovereignty, and I'm going to fully defend the constitution and laws of the state of Idaho."

University of Idaho law professor Richard Seamon predicted in June that the U.S. Supreme Court's striking down of the federal Defense of Marriage Act would prompt such challenges, even though the DOMA case left state marriage bans in place. DOMA was struck down because it barred same-sex couples from receiving benefits.

"This lawsuit reflects the other shoe that was bound to drop," Seamon said Friday. "The only question is whether this is the suit that ends up presenting the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court. And that depends largely on timing."

The lawsuit says the married women are allowed to file joint federal tax returns, but must file separately in Idaho. They lack the right in Idaho to make decisions for an ill or incapacitated spouse and lack recognition as a legal parent and other rights and responsibilities afforded to married couples.

Fifteen states now recognize same-sex marriage. Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee Chairman Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, has raised questions about whether Idaho tax law needs changes after the DOMA decision. But there has been no talk in the Legislature of repealing Idaho's constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage and civil unions, which passed with 63 percent of the vote in 2006.

The couples suing the state are Sue Latta and Traci Ehlers, who were married in California in 2008; Lori and Sharene Watsen, who were married in New York in 2011 and have a infant son; Shelia Robertson and Andrea Altmayer, who have been together 16 years and are raising a 4-year-old son; and Amber Beierle and Rachael Robertson, who have been together three years.

Rich said his deputy acted properly in denying marriage licenses to Altmayer and Shelia Robertson and to Beierle and Rachael Robertson.

The couples appeared at the Ada County Courthouse with their attorneys Wednesday, Rich said.

"We're following the law and until the Legislature or the courts change it, I will continue to follow the law and not issue same-sex licenses," Rich said Friday. Rich said that as far as he knows, the two requests were the first made by same-sex couples in Ada County.

Beierle is the visitor services coordinator at the Old Idaho Penitentiary. Rachael Robertson is the warehouse manager for Keller Supply; she spent five years in the Idaho Army National Guard and served in Iraq.

"Idaho is our home, and in my heart I believe it's the best state in the nation," Rachael Robertson said in a news release. "People in Idaho believe in treating people fairly. Amber and I want all the same things that other families want. We want to build the life we dream of together, to share a home and a family name, and to be treated the same as any other married couple."

Lori Watsen is associate field director for the School of Social Work at Boise State. She said Idaho treats the couple "as if our marriage never happened." Sharene Watsen is a physician assistant and the birth mother of a 6-month-old son.

"We are two dedicated, loving parents who have made work and other life changes to be able to provide our son a loving, safe home, but Idaho does not recognize me as his legal parent, so I have no official status in his life," Lori Watsen said.

Latta, an artist and adjunct professor at Boise State, and Ehlers, a small-business owner, have two adult children and two grandchildren.

"Especially as Traci and I get older, it frightens me that we do not have the same legal protections and respect that other married couples take for granted in the event that one of us becomes ill or dies," Latta said. "We are legally married, and we would simply like the state of Idaho to respect our marriage just as it does those of opposite-sex couples."

Altmayer is a massage therapist and Shelia Robertson teaches deaf children.

"Because Shelia is not recognized as a legal parent of our son, I fear what would happen to our family if I became ill and unable to make decisions for him," Robertson said. "If we could marry, we would be legally recognized as a family and would have all the same legal protections as others."

Local counsel for the couples are Deborah Ferguson and Craig Durham of Boise.

Said Ferguson: "Idaho is part of the great Western tradition that strongly values freedom and fairness. Most people in this state, like most Americans, believe that the law should respect individual freedom and treat all families equally. The couples in this case deserve to be treated with equal fairness and respect, including having the same freedom to marry that others enjoy."

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service