With Wedding On The Line, Plaintiffs Prep For Same-Sex Marriage Challenge

Five gay couples are behind the lawsuit challenging Alaska’s ban on same-sex marriage. The suit was filed Monday in federal court. And in this case, the political is especially personal.

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Courtney Lamb is in the early stages of planning her wedding.

“I’ve asked people to be like, you know, bridesmaids. And I have my veil and my shoes.”

She has ideas for a dress, too. For a location, she’s thinking Girdwood. And when it comes to the reception, Lamb wants it to be more fun than traditional.

(Courtesy Stephanie Pearson)
(Courtesy Stephanie Pearson)

“Like I want a cupcake tower, not like a big eight-tier cake,” says Lamb.

There’s just one big wrinkle: Lamb doesn’t know if the state will allow her to marry her fiancée by their wedding date.

She and her partner Stephanie Pearson are one of five gay couples fighting an Alaska ban on same-sex marriage. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the federal government must recognize gay marriages, judges all across the country have decided state-level bans are unconstitutional. On Wednesday, Idaho’s ban was struck down. The same thing happened last week in Arkansas. Oklahoma, Virginia, Illinois, Michigan, and Texas have all seen similar decisions from the federal courts this year.

Lamb thinks there’s a good shot that gay marriage could be legal in Alaska — and even nationwide — by next May.

“We’re planning our wedding, and if this goes through and it’s legal by the time we have all of our plans finalized, then that’s wonderful,” says Lamb. “And if not, then we will have a big party with our friends and still celebrate ourselves and our relationship.”

Fellow plaintiffs Matt Hamby and Chris Shelden are on the opposite sides of the spectrum. They’ve already been married — twice.

The first time was in 2008, in Canada, where same-sex marriage has been legal for nearly a decade.

“We were married outdoors, and that time of year it was raining a lot, so we took a lot of umbrellas with us,” says Shelden.

Matthew Hamby and Chris Shelden in 2012. (Photo by Chris Hamby)
Matthew Hamby and Chris Shelden in 2012. (Photo by Chris Hamby)

They read their vows again this Christmas Eve, this time in Utah. A judge had ruled against the state’s marriage ban that week, and the couple was already there visiting family. So, they took advantage of the moment.

“Of course, when you fill out the license, you have to state that you’re not married,” says Hamby. “So, of course I said, ‘Well, we are married. We’ve been married since 2006 in Canada.’ And she says, ‘Well, as long as you’re marrying the same person, it’s okay.'”

That’s when they realized the possibility for Alaska.

“I think that we saw that if Utah could see that change, that Alaska’s constitutional amendment was probably unconstitutional before the United States Constitution, too,” says Shelden. “It really did give us hope.”

Hamby and Shelden have been a couple for nearly a decade, and they’ve lived in Alaska longer than that. Shelden moved here in 1994. Hamby came up in 1997, right before voters adopted the first gay marriage ban in the country.

HAMBY: I thought it was almost devastating. It seemed like I was moving to a place that was creating a different tier of status for gay people.

SHELDEN: Yeah, you feel like do you even want to stay, but we love Alaska and we don’t really have any desire to be anywhere else. And yet we don’t feel like we’re protected. We don’t feel like we have the same rights as other people. We don’t feel like we can take care of each other properly.

It’s more than just a social stigma, they say. They wanted to get a specific title on their house for legal purposes, but they can’t because their marriage is not recognized.

Hamby says there’s just a greater burden placed on them when dealing with state government.

“Straight couples just have to check a box and put a name and social security number on there and say they’re married,” says Hamby.

Gay couples have to provide an affidavit and have a handful of legal documents like vehicle registrations and wills ready to go to prove they’re together.

Shelden says if their legal challenge is successful, that would be a thing of the past. And he thinks having legal recognition matters for the gay community, especially its younger members.

“For the security of our relationship, it’s not that important. For our ability to take care of each other, it is important,” says Shelden. “But I think this is more important than us.”

The State of Alaska is expected to defend the marriage ban in court.

Opinion in Alaska has recently been shifting toward gay marriage. According to a survey released by Public Policy Polling on Wednesday, 52 percent of Alaskans favor gay marriage, while 43 percent oppose it. Last year, the numbers were essentially flipped.

agutierrez (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.209.1799 | About Alexandra

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