Washington State gays sue for right to marry
March 10 2004 12:00 AM ET
Johanna Bender and her partner, Sherri Kokx, thought a lot about going to San Francisco to get married. Instead, they decided the gay-marriage fight was one they wanted to make in their own state.
Bender and Kokx, who have two children, were one of six couples who went to court Monday seeking the right to get married. The mayor of Seattle also jumped into the debate by announcing that the city would begin recognizing same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions.
"We need to be able to look our kids in the eye and have them see us as a family, like all the other families in their lives. The other part is largely because we are parents and we want to protect their futures," said Bender, a Seattle lawyer.
Seattle mayor Greg Nickels doesn't have the authority to begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses, as the mayors of San Francisco and New Paltz, N.Y., have done, because marriage licenses are handled by counties in Washington State. State law defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
But on Monday, Nickels signed an executive order that requires city departments to begin recognizing the unions of gay employees who get married elsewhere. The spouses of those employees are now entitled to the same benefits as the spouses of heterosexual workers. "Seattle has often been in the forefront of protecting all its citizens regardless of sexual orientation," Nickels said at a news conference Monday.
A California group called the Pacific Justice Institute vowed to sue Nickels, saying he broke state law.
The mayor said he would ask the city council to pass an ordinance to require contractors who work with the city to recognize gay marriage as well as to protect gay married couples throughout the city from discrimination in employment, housing, or the use of parks or other city facilities. Councilwoman Jean Godden said she expected the ordinance to pass unanimously.
Ron Sims, the executive of King County, which includes Seattle, said he won't begin issuing marriage licenses to gays because it is not his right to decide which laws to enforce. But when six gay couples showed up at the county administration building Monday morning to apply for marriage licenses, Sims
opened the door for them.
Sims, who is black, said he remembers images from his childhood of white government officials in the South blocking blacks from entering buildings restricted to whites. "I was not going to fold my arms, hold my hand up, and say, 'You have no rights here,"' Sims said, encouraging the six couples to sue him and the county. "We do not have equal protection in this state when it comes to marriage.... Today's laws must be changed."
After the six couples were denied licenses, they filed suit in King County superior court, seeking to overturn the state's 1998 Defense of Marriage Act, which made Washington one of 39 states defining marriage as the union of a man and woman. They cited the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment to the state constitution, which demands that no law confer rights to certain classes of citizens without applying to all citizens.
Dozens of same-sex couples followed their lead by applying for marriage licenses--and being denied. "As long as gay couples cannot marry, they are not treated equally under the law," said Jamie Pedersen, a Seattle attorney who is representing the six and is cochair of the board of directors for the national gay rights advocacy group Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. "This case seeks full marriage for lesbian and gay couples in Washington--nothing more and nothing less."
The lawsuit argues that barring gay couples from marriage denies same-sex partners many rights, among them the right to make funeral arrangements for each other, the right to file income taxes jointly, and the right to go through family courts should they split up.