NORMAN — A federal judge’s ruling Wednesday in California — and a federal judge’s decision last month in Massachusetts — have made conservative Oklahoma in the middle of the country an unlikely battleground for gay marriage.
Longtime Broken Arrow couple Sharon Baldwin and Mary Bishop, who are the named plaintiffs challenging Oklahoma’s Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, said California’s case does not carry any legal precedent in their own case. However, Baldwin said it shows “the tide is turning” and more judges could follow the lead of what has happened in California and Massachusetts.
On the other side of the issue, Michael L. Jestes, executive director of the Oklahoma Family Policy Council, which opposes same-sex marriage, said he was not surprised to hear the ruling Wednesday, and he urged opponents of same-sex marriage to get involved at the grassroots level because the debate likely will heat up in Oklahoma.
Although the U.S. district judge’s decision does not have a direct effect on pending legal challenges against Oklahoma’s same-sex marriage ban, Toby Jenkins, president of Oklahomans for Equality, said the news provides optimism that the state law could be changed one day.
Opposition, challenges remain
Jestes said California’s ruling is worrisome because he said it is ignoring the voice of the people who voted for Proposition 8.
“It is not mainstream America to redefine marriage,” he said. “I think that needs to be a state right, and this is the third time people (in California) have overwhelmingly spoken against redefining marriage, and it is the third time people have then tried to go around the corner to redefine marriage.
“It has faced us in the East and West,” he said referring to court challenges in California and Massachusetts. “And it is only a matter of time before it comes here to the middle (of the country).”
Oklahoma legal battle
“We hope judges across country, that for whatever reason are sympathetic, see there are legitimate reasons to rule in favor of us,” Baldwin said. “In our case, we are hoping our judge will look at the transcript (from the California case).”
Baldwin and Bishop began their legal challenge in 2004 along with Sue and Gay Barton-Phillips, who now are separately challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act since they are married, unlike Baldwin and Bishop. In seeking to overturn the state’s ban, Bishop said they still are waiting for legal procedures to move forward after they amended their challenge last year to name different defendants.
Bishop said if left to the voters’ will, change in Oklahoma is very unlikely. That is why she said her goal is for her case, the California case or another one to eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
“People say it could never happen in Oklahoma, and if it is left to the majority vote it might never happen,” she said. “That is why we believe it is up to courts to ensure the rights of the minority are granted and upheld, just as they were in the racial civil rights movement. The rights of the minority can’t be left up to votes of the majority.”
One couple’s story
Oklahoma City residents Damon and Brad Hayes-Milligan traveled to California in September 2008 to do something they couldn’t do at home: Get married.
With California blocking same-sex marriage shortly after their marriage through the voter-approved passing of Proposition 8, the Oklahoma couple said they were thrilled Wednesday when a U.S. district court struck down the ban as unconstitutional.
“We are both very excited,” Damon said. “It shows the best fight is to fight with logic and thinking, and I think the logic and reasoning was very sound from the judge.”
California’s landmark decision did sent ripples across Oklahoma as supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage said the ruling could eventually have an impact on whether gay marriage will be legalized in Oklahoma and the rest of the country.
“For gay Oklahomans this is a positive for any state to have any form of (same-sex marriage) recognition,” Jenkins said. “It shows to us that people are becoming more comfortable about the visibility of gay couples and gay people being more socially accepted.”
Trevor Brown is the Oklahoma Capitol Bureau chief for CNHI and The Transcript.