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Published August 06 2010

California's Prop 8 repeal could affect North Dakota

It was a decision made in a courtroom some 1,800 miles away. It only applies to the state of California; the federal judge who made it went on to stay it in anticipation of an appeal, which came promptly.

Yet the move Wednesday to overturn a voter-backed California ban on same-sex marriage reverberated in North Dakota, where a 2004 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage remains unchallenged.

Local gay rights advocates heralded the decision as an important if far-flung victory; opponents of gay marriage worried the ruling, which appears bound for the Supreme Court, might undermine North Dakota’s ban on same-sex marriage down the road.

“On the surface, it’s just affecting California right now,” said Tom Freier of the North Dakota Family Alliance, which placed the 2004 amendment on the ballot. “But as the case is appealed, it might affect North Dakota.”

The so-called Proposition 8 landed on the ballot after the California Supreme Court ruled gay couples have a constitutional right to marry. It garnered 52 percent of the vote in 2008.

On Thursday, supporters of the proposition filed an appeal of the San Francisco federal judge’s ruling that struck it down. Still, North Dakota supporters of same-sex marriage were thrilled by the ruling, which argued the California ban discriminates against gays.

“We’ve been saying this for years, so it’s nice to have a federal judge validate what we’ve said all along,” said Gina Powers of Equality North Dakota, the group that campaigned against that North Dakota’s ban.

In 2004, Powers wed her same-sex partner in San Francisco, which briefly legalized such marriages: “It gives me great joy to know I was part of this from the beginning.”

“I know a whole lot of people are extremely happy,” Wayne Danielson, the chairman of next week’s Fargo-Moorhead Pride celebration, who plans to tout the ruling in his Aug. 15 rally speech. “My Facebook went crazy last night.”

Others found the decision deeply disappointing.

“It’s almost disparaging in saying the people of California didn’t know what they were doing when they cast their votes,” Freier said. “We view this as an attack on the constitution. The process was followed, and then one judge made a decision to overturn the will of the people.”

Dale Wolf, senior pastor at Fargo’s Atonement Lutheran Church, said the ruling was yet another chip at a traditional definition of marriage most Americans still embrace.

Lynn Olund of Fargo believes gay couples are entitled to the same privileges as married couples.

But, “the one thing they do not have a right to that neither the state nor the federal government should be allowed to grant them is a wedding,” said Olund, who supported the 2004 ban out of concern churches would be required to host same-sex marriages.

Supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage agreed an eventual Supreme Court verdict would likely have a nationwide effect. Both sides shied away from speculating how the nation’s highest court might weigh in.

“If it were to go to the Supreme Court tomorrow, I wouldn’t be very hopeful,” said Josh Boschee of Fargo-Moorhead’s Pride Collective. “But the makeup of the court can change.”

Local gay advocacy groups have no immediate plans to challenge the North Dakota same-sex marriage ban, which passed handily with roughly 73 percent of the vote. To opponents of gay marriage, the amendment is reassuring amid recent setbacks nationally.

“I think the North Dakota amendment certainly puts on secure footing for now,” said Wolf. “But I think we need to stay on alert.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529