North Dakota's proposed gay marriage ban unclear

North Dakota's proposed marriage amendment to the state constitution is unclear about whether it affects job benefits for unmarried couples, Atty. Gen. Wayne Stenehjem says. The proposed amendment, which is on North Dakota's November 2 general election ballot, limits marriage rights to opposite-sex couples. Its second sentence reads: "No other domestic union, however denominated, may be recognized as a marriage, or given the same or substantially equivalent legal effect." State representative Mary Ekstrom (D-Fargo) asked Stenehjem for a legal opinion regarding whether the amendment would bar companies that give benefits to married couples from giving them to same-sex partners or unmarried heterosexual couples who are living together. Ekstrom opposes the amendment and has been raising money to challenge it. Jon Lindgren, a former Fargo mayor, said he had similar worries about the amendment's effect. "We're concerned not only that a lot of people aren't following this closely enough, but that they are not following the meaning of that second sentence," Lindgren said. "It's a wolf in sheep's clothing."

Stenehjem's opinion, issued Thursday, said the amendment "does not specifically prohibit a North Dakota company from extending employment benefits to same-sex couples or cohabiting heterosexual couples. However, that is not to say that may not be the intent of the proponents of this measure or the people when voting upon it.... In the absence of evidence of the intent of this measure, it would be difficult for this office, or a court, to construe it at this time."

MeritCare Health Systems of Fargo has offered benefits to partners in same-sex relationships since 2003, said Harriette McCaul, MeritCare's personnel director. "If the effect of the law would prevent us from extending those benefits, we would be concerned about that," McCaul said. Partners of seven or eight MeritCare employees now receive health, dental, and life insurance, benefits already extended to married spouses, she said. The cost to the company for extended benefits is negligible, she said. "We made the decision based on the need for recruitment and retention of very valuable employees," McCaul said.

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