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Neb. holds fast to ban on same-sex marriage

OMAHA — As state bans on same-sex marriages fall across the country, some Nebraska officials are holding strong to that state’s status of having one of the nation’s most restrictive laws, which affects some of the most basic aspects of gay couples’ lives — from driver’s licenses to parenting rights.

Nebraska voters passed a state constitutional amendment in 2000 banning same-sex marriages, civil unions, or even legalized domestic partnerships, and it has withstood all legal challenges. The state’s hardline stance is especially jarring compared with neighboring Iowa, which was one of the first states to legalize same-sex marriage in 2009, says Charlie Joughin, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign.

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‘‘If you live in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and work in Omaha, just driving across the [Missouri] river, you immediately lose any and all legal connection to your spouse and your family,’’ he said.

Federal appeals courts covering nearly half the United States will soon hear arguments on gay marriage, after numerous bans were struck down in the last eight months. A federal judge ruled Nebraska’s ban was unconstitutional in 2005, but a panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed the decision a year later.

Sue Stroesser, 51, learned how far-reaching Nebraska’s ban is when she recently returned to Omaha after spending years in Washington state and Iowa. Stroesser and her partner of 30 years were married in Iowa in 2009, and she took her spouse’s last name.

She had no trouble getting a new Social Security card and passport with her married name. But when she went to a Department of Motor Vehicles branch this summer for a new Nebraska driver’s license, she was denied.

Stroesser had held a Nebraska driver’s license years earlier under her maiden name. When the clerk asked for documentation to corroborate the name change, Stroesser provided her marriage certificate. The DMV would not accept that, Stroesser was told, and a passport or Social Security card would not work, either.

‘‘I was in tears,’’ Stroesser said. ‘‘I couldn’t believe it. I just had this overwhelming feeling of injustice. I just picked up my papers and left.’’

The agency’s legal director told Stroesser that in order for a license with the married name, she would have to have it legally changed through the court system. Nebraska DMV chief Rhonda Lahm said her agency is simply following state law and noted that the policy rejecting out-of-state, same-sex marriage licenses was in place before she took over.

Lahm also acknowledged she has the authority to change that policy — but will not.

‘‘I feel that I’m following the Nebraska Constitution,’’ she said. ‘‘If the courts determine and say, ‘You need to do something different,’ we would do what the courts say.’’

Last year, the US Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to deny federal benefits to same-sex married couples under the federal Defense of Marriage Act, but it stopped short of forcing states to legalize or recognize gay marriage.

The state attorney general’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

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