St. Louis officials launched a challenge to Missouri's constitutional ban on gay marriage by issuing marriage licenses to four same-sex couples, and the state attorney general quickly went to court Thursday to try to stop it.
The four same-sex couples were married Wednesday in the office of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay in a ceremony presided over by a municipal judge. The couple's marriages are now officially recognized by the city of St. Louis, but certainly not the state.
"Make no mistake about it," Slay said. "The whole point of this is to really push the issue, to bring it to a head and get a resolution to this as quickly as possible."
On Thursday, Attorney General Chris Koster filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the marriages, arguing that municipal officials should not be deciding for themselves which state laws to follow.
St. Louis Circuit Judge Rex Burlison denied a temporary restraining order Thursday. He noted that St. Louis officials have agreed not to issue more marriage licenses to same-sex couples at this time and would do so in the future only after notifying the court and attorney general's office. The judge is to hear arguments at a later date on whether to grant an injunction against the same-sex marriages.
Slay told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that city officials issued the marriage licenses "to force this issue and to get the law settled" on whether Missouri's gay marriage ban is legal.
"If we weren't doing this, no other city in Missouri would," Slay said.
The attorney general's office is responsible for defending Missouri's constitution and laws.
"It is in the public's interest to require public officials to obey the laws they have sworn to uphold rather than make their own independent determinations as to which laws they will follow," Koster's office said in a court filing signed by Solicitor General James Layton.
Missouri voters in 2004 approved a state constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman - the first such measure enacted nationally after the Massachusetts Supreme Court permitted gay marriage in that state. The Missouri ballot measure passed with 70 percent of the vote.
Since then, there has been no effort by Republican legislative leaders to reconsider the gay marriage ban. But Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon again said on Thursday that it should be put to another vote, and he supports repealing it. He said there has been a "strong march toward a positive arc of history" on minds being changed about gay marriage.
Nixon made similar comments after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in February seeking to force Missouri to recognize the out-of-state marriages of several same-sex couples.
Last year, Nixon announced that Missouri would accept joint income tax returns from legally married gay couples, mirroring a new policy by the federal Internal Revenue Service.
That prompted a lawsuit from representatives of Baptist and family policy organizations asserting that Nixon's policy violates Missouri's constitutional provision recognizing only marriages between men and women. A judge denied a temporary restraining order in April against Nixon's policy but the case is still pending in Cole County Circuit Court.
Slay, Nixon and Koster are Democrats. Because of Missouri's term limits, Nixon can't seek another term as governor. Koster is the leading candidate to be the Democratic nominee for governor in two years.
In a statement, Koster said he personally supports marriage equality but as Missouri's top attorney he said he must defend the gay marriage ban in court.
"While many people in Missouri have changed their minds regarding marriage equality, Missourians have yet to change their constitution," he said. "Cases currently pending in Jefferson City and Kansas City regarding the constitutionality of Missouri's ban against same-sex marriage will be decided in the coming months. Regardless of my personal support for marriage equality, such vital questions cannot be decided by local county officials acting in contravention of state law."
Koster estimated it would take 12 to 18 months for Missouri's courts to resolve the issue, making it almost certainly a significant campaign issue in the 2016 election season.
Gay rights leader Kyle Picoola believes Missouri's voters are willing to overturn the ban.
"Public trend has shifted dramatically," he said. "In fact, polls are showing in Missouri that support is up 60 percent. If there was a vote today, we would be in good shape."
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