HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court on Monday rejected an "overly broad" request that gay couples be guaranteed the same benefits as married couples.
The court wrote in Monday's 4-3 decision Monday that a lower court was within its discretion when it earlier dismissed the request. But the Supreme Court left the door open for the gay couples to modify their request and try again.
A Helena district court judge dismissed the six couples' case last year after state prosecutors argued that spousal benefits are limited by definition to married couples. A voter-approved amendment in 2004 defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock based his ruling in part on the state's marriage amendment and also said that an order to force state lawmakers to write new laws would violate the separation of powers.
The majority justices upheld that decision. The court wrote that the gay couples want the court to intervene "without identifying a specific statute or statutes that impose the discrimination they allege."
James Goetz, the attorney for the couples, said in April arguments before the high court that his clients were not asking to for the right to marry. But they are entitled to make the same decisions about their families' health care and finances as married couples under the Montana Constitution, and the state's refusal to expressly provide those rights is discriminatory, he said.
Assistant attorney general Mike Black responded that the couples' demands were overly sweeping and they do not cite the specific laws that would have to be changed.
Among the rights the couples are asking for in the lawsuit filed in 2010:
• Inheritance rights, and the ability to make burial decisions and receive workers compensation death benefits.
• The right to file joint tax returns, claim spousal tax exemptions or take property tax benefits.
• The right to make health care decisions for a spouse when that person cannot.
• Legal protection in cases of separation and divorce, including children's custody and support.