On behalf of 11 same-sex couples, the American Civil Liberties Union has sued the state of Washington, challenging laws that deny marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples. In simultaneous news conferences in Spokane and Seattle on Thursday, the advocacy group said Washington State's constitution does not allow discrimination based on gender. The couples either want to marry or want to have their marriages elsewhere recognized by the state, ACLU field director Genevieve Aguilar said. "We really hope this lawsuit will help allow families to gain full rights and to be able to give individuals the same kind of privileges that many straight couples already have," Aguilar said. The state's 1998 Defense of Marriage Act violates the state and federal constitutions, which guarantee equal protection under the law, the ACLU contends. "Lawmakers cannot pass legislation that is contrary to the state constitution," said Matthew J. Segal, an attorney with the Seattle firm of Preston Gates Ellis, which is assisting the ACLU. Washington is among 39 states with laws defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
The suit, filed in Thurston County superior court, seeks a ruling mandating that all marriage laws be applied without regard to gender, giving same-sex couples the same legal rights as heterosexual couples, Aguilar said. Attorney General Christine Gregoire said her office will defend the state law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. "The issue has emerged as one of the most emotional civil rights and controversial legal issues of the day," Gregoire said. "It has brought out strongly held and widely divergent views. It is only appropriate that this issue be addressed by our courts after a full and fair presentation of all legal arguments." Gregoire said only arguments consistent with constitutional protections of equal rights and nondiscrimination will be argued but that she would not object to the legislature hiring its own legal counsel to argue other positions.
Present at the Spokane press conference were Marge Ballack and Diane Lantz, a couple who have lived together for 25 years and were married in British Columbia in 2003. "We're asking to be legally married in this state," Ballack said, saying there are more than 1,100 tax and other benefits available exclusively to married couples. Another lawsuit was filed last month by six same-sex couples in King County, challenging that county's ban on issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.
The state legislature has resisted attempts to legalize same-sex marriage, civil unions, or even gay civil rights. A bill to authorize same-sex civil unions died without a hearing in the Democrat-controlled house this year. A measure to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing, employment, and financial transactions died in the senate.