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Cali Owings, Published June 26 2013

Gay marriage rulings open door for change in North Dakota, advocate says

FARGO – A U.S. Supreme Court decision Wednesday extending federal benefits and protections to married same-sex couples was well-received by proponents here, though it will have no direct implication in North Dakota and other states that ban gay marriage.

The news carried more direct impact east of the Red River, where effects of the decision will be felt in Minnesota after the state begins recognizing same-sex marriages on Aug. 1.

For Moorhead resident Anita Bender, the decision means she and her partner of 13 years will be able to receive more than 1,100 federal benefits and protections if they decide to get married.

Marriage is a fairly new concept to Bender and her partner though they’ve been together more than a decade.

“It’s something that we were never thinking about before because it wasn’t an option; now it’s a possibility,” she said.

After the nation’s highest court struck down a part of the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, the path to federal benefits for married same-sex couples depends on whether they live in a state that recognizes their marriage.

In border communities like Fargo-Moorhead, that difference will be obvious.

“On Aug. 1, I will have all of the rights I can have. If I cross the river, I suddenly don’t have those rights anymore,” said Geneva Nemzek, a Moorhead resident and Concordia College senior.

Still like many other same-sex marriage advocates, Nemzek said she was pleased with the court’s ruling despite its limitations. In a separate but narrower ruling, justices paved the way for same-sex marriage to resume in California.

“(The DOMA ruling) is a huge step for equality and gay rights,” Celeste Carlson said. “Locally, the equality doesn’t extend to everybody, including North Dakotans.”

Carlson, who lives in Fargo, has been house-hunting in Moorhead with her partner of six years since Minnesota legalized same-sex marriage in May.

They’re getting married in Minnesota regardless, but Carlson isn’t sure if they will also move across the river where they’ll now be recognized by the state and the federal government.

There’s a lot to consider for the couple and their two children, like leaving the home they’ve lived in since the kids were born and different state tax rates, Carlson said. Moving to Minnesota is just one of several options, she said.

While the Supreme Court’s decision has seemingly little immediate impact in states like North Dakota, where voters in 2004 added a gay marriage ban to the state constitution, many advocates said it opens the door for change.

Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota Law School professor and former chief ethics lawyer for the Bush administration, said the court’s holding raises serious doubt as to whether state laws can prohibit same-sex marriage.

Painter, who chairs a group of Minnesota Republicans in favor of marriage equality, said states like North Dakota “need to look at their laws and whether they would withstand constitutional scrutiny if challenged.”

Further, Painter predicted more challenges to state laws in federal court.

While some who support gay marriage might consider leaving North Dakota for Minnesota’s more favorable climate for LGBT people, Dave Lanpher isn’t one of them.

Lanpher, who chairs the Fargo Human Relations Commission, said working toward discrimination protections for GLBT people in North Dakota is one of the first steps.

“If we all leave the state, who will bring the message? There’s work still to be done in Fargo and in the state of North Dakota,” he said.

Statements from North Dakota's delegation

North Dakota’s congressional delegation weighs in on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the part of the Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

“While it doesn’t directly affect North Dakota, I’m concerned about today’s decision by the Supreme Court because it weakened the Defense of Marriage Act. I continue to support and believe that marriage is a unique institution, a union between a man and a woman.”

– Republican Sen. John Hoeven

“While I am disappointed in these activist rulings which ignore both the will of the people and of Congress, this does not end the national discussion on the issue. I will continue to review in detail the text of these rulings and any potential implications on the definition of marriage established by the people of North Dakota.”

– Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer

“As attorney general for North Dakota, I took discrimination head-on and today’s decision by the Court is a triumph for equality. Discrimination is discrimination and our government has no business treating the relationships of same-sex couples any different than it treats the relationship I have with my husband.”

– Democrat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Cali Owings at (701) 241-5599