CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Supreme Court on Monday unanimously reversed a district court ruling, allowing a same-sex couple to obtain a divorce in Niobrara County.
District Judge Keith Kautz of Niobrara County earlier dismissed the 2010 divorce petition of Paula Christiansen against Victoria Lee Christiansen for lack of jurisdiction.
The women were legally married in Canada in 2008.
The Supreme Court opinion, written by Justice Michael Golden, made clear the court’s decision only addressed the divorce issue.
“Nothing in this opinion should be taken as applying to the recognition of same-sex marriages legally solemnized in a foreign jurisdiction in any context other than divorce,” Golden wrote in a footnote. “The question of recognition of such same-sex marriages for any other reason, being not properly before us, is left for another day.”
“I spoke to my client and she is very happy with the decision,” said Tracy Zumbrod of Cheyenne, the attorney for Paula Christiansen.
Paula Christiansen’s job has taken her to another state, Zumbrod said, but she can still pursue the divorce in Niobrara County since that’s where the petition was filed.
Zumbrod said she wasn’t at liberty to say where Christiansen is now living.
Nobody answered the phone at the office of Logan Heth, the Lusk-based attorney who represents Victoria Lee Christiansen.
“We think it’s a step in the right direction, albeit a baby step,” said Jeran Artery of Cheyenne, a board member for Wyoming Equality — an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the state.
“This is a very narrow decision,” he added.
Artery added that at least the court said the same-sex marriage in the case was more comparable to common-law marriages.
The opinion said that while common-law marriages entered in Wyoming were invalid, the court recognized, for limited purposes, the validity of common-law marriages entered in out-of-state jurisdictions.
The Legislature last winter voted down a proposed constitutional amendment that would have banned recognition of same-sex marriages performed out of state.
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“Now the Wyoming Supreme Court did exactly what we predicted it would do starting in 2009 — define marriage in Wyoming,” said Becky Vanderberghe, president of WyWatch, a family action organization opposed to same-sex marriage.
WyWatch, she added, will continue to encourage the Legislature to “correct” the statutes and allow people to vote on the so-called “defense of marriage” constitutional amendment.
During the 2012 budget session, all non-budget bills such as the “defense of marriage” amendment will require a two-thirds majority vote to be considered.
“We’re still going to bring it up,” Vanderberghe said. “If nothing else, we will use the introduction vote for the following election.”
Vanderberghe also said her organizaiton was disappointed that the state’s former and current attorneys general didn’t file an amicus brief defending Wyoming’s marriage laws in the same-sex divorce case.
The Supreme Court earlier this year denied a petition filed by 13 legislators who wanted to intervene in the same-sex divorce lawsuit.
House Speaker Ed Buchanan, R-Torrington, one of the 13, was in court Monday and not available for comment.
Sen. Curt Meier, R-LaGrange, and Rep. Amy Edmonds, R-Cheyenne, also signed the petition.
Meier doesn’t believe the constitutional amendment can get through the Legislature next year unless there is a consensus. He said it would be better to wait until after the 2012 general election and see how the makeup of the Legislature changes.
Edmonds said she signed the petition because she wanted the court to hear the legislators’ position on the issue. Edmonds said supporters should try to introduce the amendment next year.
Meier also said he believed Judge Kautz was correct in his conclusion.
The Supreme Court said Kautz relied on the state statute defining marriage as a contract between a man and a woman in deciding there was no legal marriage to dissolve in the Christiansen divorce case.
The high court relied more on another state statute which provides that all “marriage contracts which are valid by the laws of the country in which contracted are valid in this state.”
The Supreme Court found no conflict exists between the two statutes.