by Matthew Brown and Lisa Baumann
BILLINGS, Mont. — Gay couples began exchanging wedding vows at county courthouses across Montana on Thursday, a day after a federal judge threw out the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.
Randi Paul and Jill Houk of Billings lined up for their marriage license before dawn at the Yellowstone County Courthouse. Less than two hours later — and just minutes after paying $53 for a license — they wed in a crowded courthouse hallway as dozens of friends, supporters, and members of the media crowded around.
Universal Life Church minister Jeffrey Hill officiated over the brief ceremony. He said the event marked a triumph of love over law.
For Paul, a 28-year-old legal analyst, the occasion marked the realization of a longtime dream of getting married in her home state.
“I’m a super Montanan. That’s a big part of who I am. The prospect of getting married somewhere else was upsetting,” she said.
Montana Attorney General Tim Fox filed notice late Wednesday that he is appealing the ruling from U.S. District Judge Brian Morris that struck down the ban and made Montana the 34th state in which same-sex marriages are now legal.
Fox won’t seek an immediate stay to block the ruling while the case is pending. His spokesman, John Barnes, said the state was waiting for a San Francisco-based federal appeals court to set a schedule for the case.
But some couples said they were eager to say their vows in case Fox’s appeal prevails.
“Our feeling was to make sure to get married in a positive legal climate,” said Danielle Egnew, a 45-year-old Billings musician who was applying for a license to marry Rebecca Douglas. She said the couple already has a date for a larger ceremony — Sept. 15 — but would exchange vows Thursday to be safe.
Morris ruled that Montana’s constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a man and a woman violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
The judge recognized that some might disagree with his decision, given that the state’s ban was approved by voters. But he said the U.S. Constitution exists to protect “disfavored minorities from the will of the majority.”
In September, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down similar bans in Idaho and Nevada as unconstitutional. Montana is part of the 9th Circuit, and Morris cited the appellate court ruling in his decision.
The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday was holding celebrations at several county courthouses across the state, with officiants present for same-sex couples who wished to marry immediately.
In Helena, the first couple to get their license was Mary Blair and Jamie Fortune, who have been together nearly four years.
“Everything’s changing for the better,” Blair said. They plan to wed Dec. 31, to coincide with their anniversary.
Montana is one of three states that continued their legal fight against gay marriage despite rulings in favor of the practice from federal appeals courts that oversee them. The other two are South Carolina and Kansas, where gay marriage is being allowed in some parts of the state.
In South Carolina, Republican Attorney General Alan Wilson said he would fight to uphold the state’s constitutional ban even though the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday denied his emergency request to block gay marriages being performed there.
The first marriage licenses were issued Wednesday in Charleston, South Carolina, and a lesbian couple exchanged vows on the courthouse steps.
Wilson said the nation’s top court has not yet resolved conflicting rulings by federal appeals courts. He said a decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding gay marriage bans in several Midwest states means the matter likely will go to the high court.
“Our office will be supporting the position of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is more consistent with South Carolina state law, which upholds the unique status of traditional marriage,” Wilson said.