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Activists consider whether to challenge N.D. marriage ban

Activists consider whether to challenge N.D. marriage ban

An advocacy group for gay and lesbian rights says it is still weighing how to respond to a new North Dakota constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Supporters of the ban say they expect it to withstand any challenge. Larry Peterson, a spokesman for Equality North Dakota, which opposed the measure approved by 73% of voters in this month's election, said a court challenge is an option but that the group has no immediate plans for a lawsuit. "There's been a lot of e-mail discussions about where we might go from here," he said. "At the moment there has not been any decision. It's definitely a long-term project." Some gay rights activists in North Dakota's Red River Valley are considering a boycott of businesses considered unfriendly to gay rights, University of North Dakota student Chip Willcutt told the Grand Forks Herald. Willcutt said the idea is still tentative. A list of businesses is being compiled with the help of a national human rights Web site that rates such businesses, he said. Another possibility is to encourage businesses to post a special symbol on their doors to advertise their support for gay rights, he said. "It would say something like 'We support you in this state. Please shop here,"' Willcutt said. Richard Rathge, director of the North Dakota state data center, said 2000 census figures show the state had 843 households reporting same-sex partners. But he said the number is based on self-reporting in a conservative state, so it has probably been underreported. The census does not include gay singles. North Dakota and 10 other states passed measures November 2 defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman only. In North Dakota the effort to put the language in the state constitution was prompted by worries that the courts could reject the state's seven-year-old law banning state recognition of same-sex marriages. In Oklahoma two lesbian couples have filed a lawsuit challenging the new constitutional amendment there, saying the state ban violates the civil rights of gay people. Peterson said a court challenge in North Dakota would require a similar move. "Clearly, one needs plaintiffs for a court challenge," he said. "So the question is, Will a gay or lesbian couple step forward, or a business that's being denied the rights to extend domestic-partner benefits?" John Trombley, chairman of the North Dakota Family Alliance, which coordinated the initiative campaign that brought the measure to the ballot, said his group would not be surprised by a legal challenge to the amendment. "We know that kind of thing is happening in other states," he said. "Frankly, we're not all that worried about it. I think state by state, those amendments will stand up to judicial inquiry." Both the Family Alliance and Equality North Dakota are trying to monitor what is happening in the other states. In Montana, another state that passed a ban this month, Montana State University is reviewing its policy allowing gay couples married in other states to rent family housing. Michael Harwood, director of residence life at North Dakota State University, said couples there must show a marriage license to be considered for family housing. He said the issue of gay couples seeking housing has not arisen on campus, but if it did, "we have to go by state law." The amendment will take effect after it is certified by the state canvassing board on November 18. Secretary of State Al Jaeger said there is no waiting period for a group to initiate a petition drive to try to get the measure back on the ballot in the next statewide election, which would be in June 2006.

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