Supporters and opponents of gay marriage in Wichita are both anxious and optimistic as they wait for a Supreme Court ruling that they think will finally decide the legal status of gay marriage in the United States.
The decision is expected to come at 9 a.m. on one of three days: Thursday, Friday or Monday.
Evan Shaheen, president of Wichita Pride, has worked toward this moment for more than a decade, he said, first fighting a constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage in Kansas in 2005.
If the court rules in favor of a federal right to marriage equality, he and other same-sex marriage supporters will head to Old Town at 5:30 p.m. “Of course there will be celebrating, a sigh of relief, basically a party,” Shaheen said. “Because everything that we’ve worked for has culminated in this moment.”
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They will also head there if the court’s decision allows states to ban gay marriage. “If they rule against us, it becomes a protest,” Shaheen said. “To show even though this happened, we’re not going anywhere.”
Kansas has had a constitutional ban against gay marriage since 2005, but some counties, including Sedgwick, began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples last fall after a court ruling. Sedgwick County has issued 131 licenses so far. Douglas County has issued 40. A clerk at the Johnson County Courthouse said it has issued about two or three a week.
Terry Fox, a minister at Summit Church, was a leading supporter of the 2005 ban. He said he is somewhat optimistic about the upcoming court decision. For him, the issue is whether states will be given the right to make their own decisions.
Either way the court decides, he wants the ruling to be clear. “I hope we’re not trying to guess what it means,” Fox said. “Then the issue has been settled as far as the court goes, and then the churches can react.”
Fox said that he and others who oppose gay marriage have not planned a response to the court’s decision but are capable of mobilizing quickly if they decide to. Even if the court rules in favor of gay marriage, he sees a long battle ahead.
“It will be as long and as troublesome an issue as abortion has been,” Fox said. “And there will need to be some clarity among business owners as well as among the churches.”
Fox said religious freedom bills will be needed to protect the rights of Christians to act out their beliefs as business owners and employees, in addition to as church members. He expects the court to continue to allow churches to refuse to perform same-sex marriages.
Religious freedom bills
Thomas Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, said he’s been fighting religious freedom bills, which he described as “trying to make life hell for gay and lesbian people,” every year since 2011 and expects to continue to do so after the decision. Many gay couples, he said, are afraid that they could be discriminated against by employers even if the court rules in their favor.
“This country is still fighting over one of the discriminatory symbols of the last 150 years, the Confederate flag,” Witt said. “We have seen that some people are not going to give up the right to discriminate against others.”
Lisa and Natalie Tos-Brightup have been together for almost nine years. They got married on April 11.
Because Kansas does not fully recognize their marriage, they said, they have not been able to change their driver’s licenses to reflect their new surname, even though the federal government recognized it on their new Social Security cards.
Being in limbo also makes filing taxes harder, since they said they could file jointly for their federal taxes but would have to file individually for their state taxes.
Ash Wickell, a therapist in Wichita who has been in a relationship with Aaron Lybrand for two years, said he wants to get married at some point but has been reluctant to consider it because of the conflicting decisions about marriage equality at the state and federal levels in Kansas.
“We’d like to have kids one day,” Wickell said. “And I’m not willing to have kids unless we have custody nailed down at a legal level.”
If they can’t marry here, they might one day leave for a place like Seattle, Lybrand’s home, Wickell said.
“We would like to stay in Kansas,” he said. “But if we can’t do the long-term stuff we want to, we’re not going to stay here.”
Paul Johnson, a bartender at gay-friendly Rain Cafe and Lounge, is more optimistic. He said everyone he has heard from believes there is a 90 percent chance the court will rule in favor of marriage equality and that the focus is more on where people will go to celebrate afterward. Many customers will come to hear about the decision on the TVs at the bar, he said.
Shaheen, the president of Wichita Pride, said Wichita has become dramatically more supportive of the gay community over the past decade, and the celebration of a supportive decision will flow over into a number of bars. “It used to be that a gay person could not walk into (the bar) Rodeo and feel comfortable,” Shaheen said. “But now you absolutely can.”
Fox said that although supporters of gay marriage have gained ground over the past decade, he still believes a majority in Kansas oppose gay marriage and that a decision in favor could lead to a cultural backlash.
“Has the homosexual agenda made positive ground since 2005? Yes,” Fox said. “But I think there is a huge danger of the homosexual activists pushing too hard, too far, too fast, which I think will cause a reaction, an awakening, among traditional Christians.”