Gays Still Waiting for Washington's Answer

Times Staff Writer

Any week now.

That's what the Rev. Peter Ilgenfritz has been hearing for a year as he and his longtime partner, David Shull, await a decision by Washington state's highest court on whether they can get married.

In 2004, two lower-court judges ruled in favor of Ilgenfritz and Shull and 18 other gay and lesbian couples, who all sued for the right to marry. The judges struck down the state's Defense of Marriage Act -- which defines marriage as between a man and a woman -- as unconstitutional.

But those rulings were stayed pending the state Supreme Court's ruling on the matter, and 15 months later, the plaintiffs still anxiously await each Thursday, the day when the court traditionally issues its rulings. The court will effectively decide whether Washington should become the second state, after Massachusetts, to allow same-sex marriage.

"I wait with such hope, I really do," the minister said. "I just have a deep trust and faith in that this is the way civil rights changes happen in our country. There are times of setback and deep disappointment.... But someday, I am really looking forward to being married to David in the state of Washington."

The tea leaves -- rulings from other states -- do not look good for his side, concedes Ilgenfritz, who made national headlines when he and Shull, who is also a minister, were hired 12 years ago to share a ministerial job at University Congregational United Church of Christ here. They have been a couple for 20 years.

New York's highest court ruled 4 to 2 against same-sex marriage last week. One opponent of same-sex marriage likened the decision to the Battle of Gettysburg -- the beginning of the end -- for the same-sex marriage movement.

Courts in two other states handed victories to opponents of same-sex marriage Friday, reinstating a Nebraska voter-passed ban and tossing out a bid in Tennessee to keep a proposed ban off the ballot there this year.

In Massachusetts, the only state where same-sex marriage is legal -- approved by the state's highest court in a case similar to the one before the top court here -- the same court ruled last week that state legislators could move ahead with efforts to place a ban on same-sex marriage on the state's 2008 ballot.

In more than a dozen states where the issue has come before voters, bans on same-sex marriage have been resoundingly approved.

But none of this deters Sherri Kokx, 35, a public school teacher in Everett, Wash., who said she was pursuing her case here in part because her 5-year-old son, Zachary, kept asking why she couldn't marry to her partner of 10 years, Johanna Bender, a lawyer.

"He says: 'I don't understand why you can't get married. Everybody gets married.' "

The couple have two children. Zachary is Kokx's biological son, and Quintin, 2, is Bender's biological son. The boys were conceived with sperm from the same anonymous donor.

A few years ago, when San Francisco was briefly issuing marriage licenses before California courts stopped it, Kokx and Bender made a date to go to the Bay Area and get married.

But they agreed to hold off once they became plaintiffs in the Washington state case, which challenges the 1998 Defense of Marriage Act, passed in spite of the veto from then-Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat.

In 2004, a judge in Seattle's King County, William L. Downing, struck down the marriage act, saying there was no legitimate reason to deny gays and lesbians the right to marry.

Pastor Joseph Fuiten, the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Network, a Christian lobbying group based in suburban Seattle, said at the time he was "flabbergasted" by the ruling.

"It's astounding that one man's opinion can turn human history on its head," said Fuiten.

But Downing, whose ruling is one of two now before the state's top court, said that marriage itself was strengthened by two committed partners and that civil union -- an "alternative species of quasi-marriage," as he called it -- was a dangerous idea that could weaken the institution of marriage.

Plaintiffs such as Ilgenfritz, Shull, Kokx and Bender were the kind of people, the judge said, "any of us should be proud to call a friend or neighbor or to sit with at small desks on back-to-school night."

Advocates on both sides of the matter say it is very difficult to divine when the court might rule, or whether the long time the nine-member panel has spent on the case is an indication of a deep divide over the issue.

The court could uphold the marriage act; strike it down, either explicitly or implicitly giving gays and lesbians the right to marry; strike it down, but also find there is not a right to same-sex marriage under the state constitution; or kick the whole matter over to the Legislature.

In the meantime, plaintiffs such as Bender and Kokx said they were "trying to preserve our privacy to the degree possible," even though they both recognize they are at the center of a very public battle.

"It's worth it," Kokx said. "I know if we really wanted to, we could go to Massachusetts or go to Canada to get married. But we're citizens of Washington state, and we're holding out for our time here. We would really like this state to recognize our marriage."

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