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Originally published August 2, 2011 at 11:39 AM | Page modified August 3, 2011 at 10:56 AM

Kitsap County's Suquamish Tribe makes same-sex marriage legal

The Suquamish Tribe in Kitsap County has made it legal for same-sex couples to marry. The vote of the tribal council was unanimous.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Suquamish Tribe

Enrollment: 1,045 members, with about half living in Kitsap County or at the Port Madison Indian Reservation.

Tribe's name: Means "Place of clear saltwater," a reference to its home on Puget Sound.

Unemployment rate: About 30 percent. The Suquamish operate the Clearwater Casino, a primary employer for the tribe, along with its government and fishing.

More information: www.suquamish.nsn.us/

Source: Suquamish Tribe

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Heather Purser has no immediate wedding plans, but thanks to her persistence, she and her partner can now legally marry on Suquamish tribal land.

The tribe this week made it legal for same-sex couples to marry.

"We are open and tolerant, and we want to make sure our members are offered the opportunity to be happy and free in their lives," said Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe. "This lined up with our values as a tribe. We don't discriminate."

Purser, 28, a commercial diver who lives in Seattle but was raised in Kitsap County off the reservation, said she had been trying for years to get the law changed.

She came out as a lesbian while at Western Washington University, then felt isolated by her tribal community.

"When I came out I felt even more isolated from the world, and decided if I could get my people to support me and allow gay marriage, maybe the hurt would go away," Purser said.

For months, she said, she went to Suquamish tribal meetings and asked that gay marriage become part of the tribal constitution.

When Purser moved to Seattle, she said, "I met someone incredible."

So in March, she went to a tribal meeting and reiterated she wanted gay marriage legalized. Urged by her family members, she asked it be voted on then. The vote by tribal members at the meeting was unanimous, she said.

In June the tribe held a public hearing, and Monday the tribal council unanimously adopted the ordinance, Forsman said.

Purser said she has no immediate plans to marry her partner, but would like that option.

"People keep asking me when the wedding is," she said. "I'm in a committed relationship right now, and it could lead to marriage."

The change won't have much legal clout, said Michelle Hansen, Suquamish tribal attorney. It won't affect federal laws that prohibit federal benefits, such as Social Security, for same-sex couples.

"The rule is that when the United States passes a statute of general applicability, it will apply to the tribe unless the statute says it doesn't," said Ron Whitener, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law specializing in tribal powers and sovereignty. And the federal Defense of Marriage Act explicitly includes tribes in its prohibition on extension of federal benefits of marriage to couples of the same gender, Whitener said.

Purser said the tribe, which wrote its constitution in 1965, has a marriage ordinance that sets out rules for marriage. What the tribe did this week was amend the ordinance to give same-sex couples all the rights and privileges that the tribe's law gives heterosexual couples.

She said the tribe had been working on the amendment for about two years, and Purser prodded them along. "What Heather was able to do at the March meeting was to bring this to the top of the list," Hansen said, adding there was no opposition.

Purser's older sister, Jennifer Hess, attended the March meeting and said, "I'm really proud of her for what she did. It was difficult for her, getting up and asking for their acceptance. I'm proud of my tribe for supporting her."

She said the big question is what this means legally, "but for Heather it means acceptance and recognition from our tribe."

The change allows the tribal court to issue a marriage license to two unmarried people, regardless of gender, if they are at least 18 and one is an enrolled member of the Suquamish Tribe.

Hansen said a number of tribes across the country have considered same-sex marriage, but none in Washington state. In 2009, the Coquille Tribe in Coos Bay, Ore., married a gay couple from Edmonds. She said that's the only tribe, besides the Suquamish, that has legalized same-sex marriage.

Six states issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York, as well as the District of Columbia.

The California Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that same-sex couples have the right to marry, but six months later voters passed Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Last August a federal district judge ruled that the same-sex ban in the proposition violated the equal-protection provisions of the U.S. Constitution, but the ruling is being appealed. California does not currently allow same-sex marriages to be performed.

In June, New York became the largest state where same-sex couples are able to wed, under the new Marriage Equality Act.

Washington state grants nearly all spousal rights to unmarried couples through domestic partnerships, but does not allow same-sex marriage.

Times staff reporter Lynda V. Mapes contributed to this report.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

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