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Kyle Potter, Published May 18 2013

Minnesota-North Dakota border may mean imperfect unions

MOORHEAD - Celeste Carlson started scouting houses here months before she and her partner of six-plus years knew for sure they’d be able to get legally married in Minnesota.

It won’t be easy for them to put their Fargo house on the market. It’s the only home Carlson and Amber Allebach have known as a couple, where they’ve raised their soon-to-be 2-year-old daughter, Makaia, and 4-year-old son, Karsten.

But they face a decision many gay couples will soon consider if they live across the border from Minnesota, which last week became the 12th state to legalize gay marriage. Of Minnesota’s four neighboring states, only Iowa also allows same-sex marriage.

“If we’re not going to be recognized here, we are going to move across the river,” Carlson said.

Their move to the Moorhead area will bring state benefits and some extra security. But in a metro area straddling the border of two states now on opposite ends of the issue, their issues won’t end with a move across the river.

Fargo’s prominence makes North Dakota’s less-gay-friendly laws difficult to avoid. New same-sex couples will still have to jump through extra hoops if their children are born or a spouse is incapacitated in a Fargo hospital, for instance.

An expert on the issue said it could take years to work out the legal ramifications in border communities such as Fargo-Moorhead.

Making the move

Adrianna Anderson and Heather Luhman aren’t ready to get married yet. Maybe in the next few years, they say. But when that time comes, they’ll be looking for a house in Moorhead.

For Anderson and Luhman, as with many other gay couples living in Fargo, a move across the border would not be just for a wedding and the benefits that come with it. It’s also about leaving a state with precious few protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation – where employers are legally free to fire gay employees and landlords can evict a gay couple.

“When you have a family, you can’t have to worry about stuff like that,” Anderson said. “We want to be able to have a roof over our heads and not have to worry about it.”

Anderson and Carlson both said they know of at least five more Fargo couples who are mulling a move but are afraid to speak publicly about their lives due to North Dakota’s policies regarding gays and lesbians.

There’s no way to know for sure how many same-sex Fargo couple will leave North Dakota for Minnesota, but the effect is unlikely to be widely noticeable. Only about 560 same-sex couples live in North Dakota, according to 2010 Census data – the lowest proportion in the nation.

North Dakota’s constitution bans same-sex marriage, after 73 percent of voters approved an amendment in 2004. It also bans civil unions between gay couples. Earlier this year, a bill preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation failed in the Legislature for the second time in four years.

“Even without gay marriage, the protections over there (in Minnesota) are better,” Carlson said.

For that reason, Greg Lemke and his partner, Mark Youngblood, moved back to Moorhead after a 10-year stint with the Fargo Police Department that required him to live in North Dakota.

The pair will soon celebrate their 25th anniversary. Lemke, a former Moorhead city councilman and vocal advocate for same-sex marriage, said they haven’t yet decided if they’ll get married.

If they do, Lemke said they’ll be sure to spend the money preparing for a ceremony east of the Red River.

About a year after friends introduced them, Carlson and Allebach joined together in a commitment ceremony at their church in 2007. With a new possibility of a state-recognized marriage just across the border, Moorhead’s pull is strong.

The couple said much of their decision hinges on the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to issue in late June two key opinions on cases related to gay marriage. Anything short of a ruling that forces North Dakota to recognize same-sex marriage – which experts say is a long shot – and Allebach said they will likely move to Moorhead.

‘Gay tax’ for parents

Mara Morken and Alex Fogarty celebrated their ninth anniversary Monday by watching from the Senate gallery as Minnesota senators voted to legalize same-sex marriage. Morken said they’ll get married “the moment we can.”

The pair moved from Fargo to Moorhead more than two years ago, but problems borne from North Dakota’s stance on same-sex couples followed them across the border. Those same issues will hit other gay couples, new and old, in the Moorhead area.

Because the state bans gay marriage, same-sex couples can’t be listed as parents on a birth certificate for a child born in North Dakota – at least not automatically. Birth certificates are issued by the state where a child is born, and Moorhead has no major hospitals or birthing centers.

Morken, Carlson and several others had to go through a court process called second-parent adoption to have their partners legally recognized as the other parent. That avenue will still be open to same-sex newlyweds, but it can be costly and time-consuming.

“I kind of consider it a gay tax,” said Morken, who said putting Fogarty’s name on their 3-year-old son Glen’s birth certificate cost about $3,000. “It’s demoralizing yet necessary.”

Morken said she and her partner have had to take extra steps to ensure they’ll be able to make medical decisions for one another if one of them is incapacitated in a Fargo hospital bed: filing paperwork with hospitals in advance or keeping it on hand if the worst happens.

Lawsuits a certainty

Alisha Ankers, a family law attorney in Fargo, said she is on a committee with the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers trying to address those issues and more.

There are also larger questions of what happens when a married same-sex couple crosses into North Dakota.

The state won’t recognize their marriage, but what happens with jointly held debt? Or children?

Ankers says there are no easy answers. What’s certain, she said, is that it will spur lawsuits.

Lots of lawsuits.

“I’m not going to be done reading probably for the next five years about how all of this is going to work,” she said.


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502