Same-Sex Marriage Becomes Legal in Washington (at Least One Part)

By Diane Anderson-Minshall

Originally published on Advocate.com August 04 2011 4:00 PM ET

Chief Seattle would be proud. The tribe he led in the late 1700s, the Suquamish, has made a giant leap toward equality by allowing and recognizing same-sex marriage. According to the Kitsap Sun,the Suquamish Tribal Council in Washington State voted Monday to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples on its reservation near Seattle, at the request of Heather Purser, a lesbian tribal member.

The change grants gay and lesbian couples all the rights afforded to heterosexual couples on the reservation. Since the rest of Washington does not recognize same-sex marriage, the law’s effect is limited to the reservation, and protections erode for same-sex couples who leave Squamish land.

The 28-year-old Purser has been trying to get the tribe’s law changed for about four years. When the measure passed this week this week, nobody voiced dissent, and it was approved unanimously.

The Squamish tribe is certainly pioneering but is not the first Native American tribe to grant same-sex marriage rights. That honor goes to the Coquille Indian Tribe in Coos Bay, Ore., who enacted marriage equality  in 2009. Several other tribes are considering the move, but so far only the Squamish and Coquille people have done so.

The oft-challenged but never repealed federal Defense of Marriage Act poses a big legal obstacle, notes The Seattle Times. "The rule is that when the United States passes a statute of general applicability, it will apply to the tribe unless the statute says it doesn't," said Ron Whitener, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law specializing in tribal powers and sovereignty. And DOMA explicitly includes tribes in prohibiting the extension of federal benefits of marriage to same-gender couples, Whitener said.

Michelle Hansen, a Suquamish tribal attorney, told the Sun that the Suquamish ordinance does not have an effect in any jurisdiction that does not legally recognize same-sex marriages conducted elsewhere. That’s the rest of Washington and the better part of the U.S. Washington State does grants nearly all spousal rights to unmarried couples through domestic partnerships, but does not allow same-sex marriage.