By Caitlin Copple
This Valentine’s Day season, many Montanans are blushing about their current crush or building a relationship with that special someone. For same-sex couples here, the butterflies and bliss of true love is often met with a cold, hard legal reality. Only six states and the District of Columbia offer equal marriage rights, and Montana is not one of them. Groups like ACLU of Montana, a recent grantee of The Advocacy Fund at Pride Foundation, are trying to change that by taking a relationship recognition lawsuit to the state Supreme Court.
Kellie, Denise and Morrgan
One of the couples in the ACLU case is Kellie and Denise. They live in Laurel, population roughly 7,000, about 20 miles west of Billings. They are one of six couples who are plaintiffs in the ACLU’s current Guggenheim v. Montana case currently before the state Supreme Court.
Kellie and Denise have been together for 11 years. They’ve raised Kellie’s two children from a previous marriage, and recently jointly adopted Kellie’s 5-year-old nephew, Morrgan. Denise, 47, is a middle school science teacher and a basketball coach. Kellie, 48, worked for many years at a juvenile detention center, but is now on disability because she suffers from a rare brain condition that has required 56 brain surgeries and over 300 spinal taps over the past decade.
Heterosexual married state employees automatically receive 10 days of bereavement leave when a family member or in-law dies, but Denise was denied bereavement leave by her employer when Kellie’s father died last April. This was despite the fact that the couple had a private commitment ceremony in 2001, witnessed by about 30 friends and family members present. They are just like most Montanans – they are active at church, and they love to travel, camp, and fish. Unlike most Montanans, their relationship doesn’t “count” according to state and federal law.
Kellie credits Denise standing by her for being able to make it through her health problems: “She never left me when I was so sick,” she says. “I endure her relentless love of sports and she endures my need for dogs. I love her to infinity and beyond!”
“Kellie and Denise have been incredibly helpful with their participation in Fair is Fair events,” said the ACLU’s LGBT organizer Liz Welch, who is based in Billings. “One of the most touching things to watch is the tenderness and protectiveness they have for each other while at these public events. I admire these two and their affectionate, playful relationship all the more because of the obstacles I know they have had to overcome.”
Guggenheim v. Montana is currently before the Montana Supreme Court. Both sides have submitted briefs and multiple amicus briefs have also been filed in support of both side of the case. Supporting amicus are 65 Montana Religious Leaders, American Psychological Association, Legal Voice, Montana Human Rights Network and Gary J. Gates and MV Lee Badgett. According to Welch, the ACLU expects a court date to be set in the very near future.
Here’s to hoping this is the last Valentine’s Day Montana’s same-sex couples spend being treated unfairly under the law.
To keep updated on the case, as well as other projects of the ACLU of Montana, please visit:www.fairisfairmontana.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org to volunteer or sign a petition in support of the lawsuit.
Caitlin Copple is the Montana Regional Development Organizer for the Pride Foundation. Feel free to email her at Caitlin@pridefoundation.org with blog ideas or to volunteer.This story first appeared in Pride Foundation’s Blog.