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Same-sex marriage is one of the hot-button issues of our times. It’s a civil rights, political, social, moral and religious issue. In many states, conflicts have arisen over whether same-sex couples should be allowed to enter into marriage, or whether they should be required to use a different status such as “civil union” that grants them equal rights without using the term “marriage.”

Supporters of same-sex marriage contend that denying same-sex couples legal access to marriage and its lawful benefits represents discrimination based on sexual orientation and invites further stigmatization from society.

Opponents reject the use of the word “marriage” based on the legal definitions in most states, upholding the social status of the union between a man and a woman, and for religious beliefs.

All of these are important perspectives in the larger moral discussion on the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

But only one of these arguments applies in a recent decision by Attorney General Steve Bullock asking District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock to throw out a lawsuit filed by seven gay couples seeking the same rights as married couples — and that is the law.

Two-thirds of Montana voters in 2004 passed Constitutional Initiative 96, making the Montana Constitution define “marriage” as between a man and a woman. We elected Bullock as attorney general to make decisions based on the law, not to impress his personal or his party’s persuasions into it. Based on the law, Bullock made the right decision to defend the Montana Constitution.

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That doesn’t mean, however, that the deeper discussion is over. The American Civil Liberties Union, which represents the seven gay couples in the lawsuit, will likely respond to Bullock’s decision and Judge Sherlock will have to consider both sides of the argument before ruling Jan. 25 on Bullock’s motion to dismiss.

State laws across America are strong against same-sex marriage, however. Forty-five states, including Montana, do not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Just three states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriage licenses from other states; one state allows civil unions for same-sex couples; and seven states have laws to provide nearly all state-level spousal rights to unmarried couples in domestic partnerships.

While Bullock appropriately ruled according to Montana law, just as he should have, it’s doubtful this issue — in Montana or elsewhere — will end here.

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