Judge Backs Same-Sex Marriage

Times Staff Writers

Gay and lesbian couples can marry under Washington state law because denying them that right is unconstitutional, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying is “not rationally related to any legitimate or compelling state interest,” said King County Superior Court Judge William L. Downing, who issued his ruling in response to a challenge of a state law defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 6, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 06, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Same-sex marriage -- An article in Thursday’s Section A said the American Civil Liberties Union and LAMBDA Legal Defense each represented one of two lawsuits that led to the decision legalizing same-sex marriage in Washington state. The Northwest Women’s Law Center was co-counsel for the couples LAMBDA represented.

Downing stayed his decision to allow the state’s Supreme Court to review the case. Until that court rules, no marriage licenses can be issued to same-sex couples in Washington.


If Downing’s decision is upheld, Washington will become the second state -- after Massachusetts -- to permit gay and lesbian couples to marry. If sustained, the ruling would go beyond the law in Massachusetts because Washington has no residency requirements and would allow out-of-state couples to wed.

The decision came out of two lawsuits filed last spring by gay and lesbian couples who were denied marriage licenses in King County soon after the Massachusetts court ruling that legalized same-sex unions. Eight couples were represented by LAMBDA Legal Defense, a group that promotes gay and lesbian rights; 11 others by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Seattle decision proves that same-sex couples who challenged the state’s definition of marriage “are full and equal citizens of Washington. No more and no less,” said Jennifer Pizer, lead counsel in the case for LAMBDA.

Joseph Fuiten, president of Washington Evangelicals for Responsible Government, deplored the ruling as “a breathtaking leap. We don’t know where this is going to take us. What are the costs for our society? I’m just stunned that a judge would leap off this building not knowing what is below.”

The state is expected to appeal the decision within 30 days and at the same time ask the Supreme Court to review the case on an expedited basis.

The Washington ruling came the day after after voters in Missouri overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a union between one man and one woman. Thirteen other states are expected to have fall ballot initiatives offering constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage.


California is one of 43 states with laws or court rulings that prohibit same-sex marriage.

Same-sex marriage remains a political flash point, prompting demonstrations at last week’s Democratic National Convention in Boston. Protests for and against same-sex marriage also are expected this month at the Republican National Convention in New York.

The Washington ruling “underscores why people are rushing all over the country to strengthen their marriage laws in the face of judicial activism,” said Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute, an affiliate of Concerned Women for America, a Christian conservative advocacy and research organization.

The back-to-back developments on same-sex marriage demonstrate that “we are literally experiencing in America the best of times and the worst of times,” said Cheryl Jacques, a former Massachusetts state senator who is president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian advocacy group.

State after state is debating the meaning of marriage -- and whether that right should be extended to gays and lesbians. “We are watching this play out all over the country,” Jacques said.

Same-sex marriage gained national prominence in November, when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that all citizens in the state had the right to wed, regardless of gender. When the decision took effect May 17, gay and lesbian couples flocked to Massachusetts to exchange vows.

But Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican who opposes same-sex marriage, swiftly invoked a little-known statute barring out-of-state couples from marrying in Massachusetts if their home states did not acknowledge the unions.

LAMBDA’s other lead attorney in the Washington case, Jamie D. Pedersen, said Washington would have no such obstacle.

“We do not have an analog to the Massachusetts law that prevents out-of-state couples from getting married here,” Pedersen said. “There is no residency requirement and no requirement that your marriage be legal in the jurisdiction where you came from. So this will be a breakthrough in a way that the Massachusetts law has not been.”

Despite the confusion over residency, the transition to same-sex marriage in Massachusetts has been “effortless,” said Mary Bonauto, a lawyer for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders who argued the landmark case in Boston.

“Prior to May 17, many people just could not conceive of a world in which same-sex couples would be making this commitment, and it is now de rigueur,” she said, noting that thousands of gay and lesbian couples have married in Massachusetts.

When the Washington lawsuits were filed in March and April, Judge Downing promised a swift response.

His ruling stressed the complexity of what he called “wedlock deadlock.” Never, he wrote, “could this or any court find itself more in tune with the lofty goals advanced by every party to a lawsuit.”

Same-sex marriage, Downing said, remains an issue about which “people of the highest intellect, the deepest morality and the broadest public vision maintain divergent opinions, strongly held in good faith and all worthy of great respect.”

Indeed, before revealing his opinion, Downing said he would “like nothing better than to stop at this point, and with a warm and sincere pat on the back, to send all the parties off to the State Supreme Court or the state Legislature or both.”

At a news conference here Wednesday, one of the plaintiff couples expressed joy that Downing did not defer to the Legislature or another court.

Beth Reis, 52, and Barbara Steele, 63, said they had been together for 27 years. One of their four children died in an automobile accident in 2001, and their three surviving children were all “in long-term, committed, heterosexual relationships.” Reis and Steele have 11 grandchildren, three step-grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

“I am just so happy,” Steele said. “After 27 years we are finally getting the recognition and protection we deserve. Just the security of knowing that in a medical emergency we will be allowed to speak for each other, to hold each other’s hand in the emergency room.”

Reis added: “Knowing that if we have to go to a nursing home someday we can share a room. We can be buried side by side. Marriage gives us all the protection we have lived without all these years.”

King County Executive Ron Sims, a defendant in the lawsuit, issued a statement applauding the decision. Although he said he strongly supported same-sex marriage, Sims had barred county staff from granting marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples because he wanted to force a court decision.

“This is an issue of equality under the law, and the courts are the appropriate place to resolve such issues,” he said.

Sims praised the couples who filed the lawsuit. “They had the courage of their convictions,” he said.

Marshall reported from Seattle and Mehren from Boston.