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Former Riverton man challenging same-sex marriage laws
Carl Oleson, left, and Robert Johnston will speak Sunday at the Fremont County Democrats meeting.

Former Riverton man among those challenging same-sex marriage laws in Wyoming

Apr 11, 2014 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

Two Casper men will meet with the Fremont County Democrats this weekend to talk about a lawsuit challenging Wyoming marriage laws.

Carl Oleson and Robert Johnston are one of four couples involved in Courage vs. Wyoming.

Oleson is a former Riverton resident.

The suit challenges state law that prohibits same-sex couples from marrying and fails to recognize legal marriages of same-sex couples who married in other states -- as Oleson and Johnston did in 2010 in Canada.

Oleson says the statutes conflict with the Wyoming Constitution.

"There is no provision in the state constitution that restricts marriage to between a man and woman," he said.

According to published reports, Wyoming has asked the judge in the suit to dismiss the action, and state officials deny that the marriage laws violate the constitutional rights of same-sex couples in Wyoming.

Johnston disagreed, pointing to the impacts a marriage commitment has on taxes, inheritance and health care decisions, for example.

"(People) don't realize the full range of the kinds of things we're talking about," he said. "This has to do with us being able to protect our home and the life we've built together over 17 years. ... It's about the rights and responsibilities that come with the kind of civil ceremony that provides you with those privileges."

Same-sex marriage isn't a state's rights issue, he continued: it's a civil issue.

"This gets to the core of the U.S. Constitution -- liberty and the pursuit of happiness for everyone," he said.

Oleson and Johnston first met in Las Vegas, but they moved to Casper in 2002 to care for Oleson's father, who died in 2009.

Oleson was born and raised in Wyoming and attended school in Riverton. He said he is looking forward to visiting Fremont County this weekend.

The trip was organized by Fremont County Democratic Party chairman Bruce Palmer, who met the couple in Casper last month.

"In fact it was the weekend after we filed (the lawsuit)," Oleson said. "He was there speaking about his experiences as a Democrat in Fremont County. ... I was really impressed with him. And I think we're both honored to be asked to speak."

'The conversation'

Johnston and Oleson will meet with the Democrats at 4 p.m. Sunday in Hudson's Town Hall. Johnston encouraged attendees to come with questions; he sees the event as an opportunity to engage in discussion about a sensitive issue.

"I'm a firm believer that if you have the conversation, then things can move forward," Johnston said. "We may not always agree on everything, (but) the reality is we should still be able to be in the room together and have that conversation."

Oleson doesn't think the topic has to be divisive.

"It's not about how we're different from anybody else -- it's about how we're exactly alike," he said. "That's not politics. That's just community."

In the end, he hopes Courage vs. Wyoming will result in changes to more than state statute.

"We need to change minds as well," he said. "People need to see us as their neighbors, not like some concept, as the 'gay agenda.'

"The gay agenda is an American agenda -- it's equal rights and equal protection, a safe place for everybody to live."

Palmer said he invited the Casper couple to Fremont County because the same-sex marriage issue is getting a lot of attention now in Wyoming.

Changing attitudes

Several groups have been formed to support the cause, including Wyoming Equality and its subsidiary Wyoming Unites for Marriage. Freedom to Marry is a national campaign that recently launched a marriage equality ad in Wyoming featuring former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and the national Human Rights Campaign stopped in Casper this week for a community event.

"For a long time it's been the gay and lesbian community sort of out there on their own fighting for what they want in the state, whether it's a safe places for kids in schools, or a safe places for parents with kids who are gay, lesbian or questioning," Oleson said.

"Now, all of a sudden, we've been able to broker those years of boots on the ground work here with some of the national organizations who are really starting to put their savvy behind marketing and public opinion."

The local Democratic party platform doesn't specifically mention same-sex marriage, but Palmer said the group believes in the civil rights and equality for all. He also thinks marriage equality aligns with core Wyoming values.

"We talk a lot in Wyoming about liberty and personal freedom," he said. "This is the Equality State. I think as long as there are people who aren't treated equally under the law, it's a misnomer."

Palmer has heard people on the other side of the debate who think same-sex marriage somehow harms traditional marriage. He said he doesn't understand the logic behind that argument.

"I've been married 35 years to my wife," he said. "There's nothing someone else could do that could diminish my marriage. ...

"The other side is being married to my wife is the best thing I've done," Palmer added "Why wouldn't I want everyone to have that kind of happiness?"

For more information, visit turnfremontblue.com.

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