MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A Minnesota couple is considering filing a federal lawsuit against a Minnesota county for its failure to recognize their marriage as legal.
Michael McConnell and Jack Baker are believed to be the first gay couple in the nation to have gotten a marriage license. They got the license in 1971 in Blue Earth County after Hennepin County turned them down and Jack legally changed his name to the gender neutral Pat.
Video from September of 1971 shows their Minneapolis wedding.
At stake is not just the legality of their marriage, but their right to collect spousal social security and disability benefits.
“We are still fighting we may end up in federal court,” Baker said.
Jack Baker and Michael McConnell have been fighting for their marriage for 45 years. In 1972, they lost an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court, but 43 years later in 2015, the high court cited their case in their ruling legalizing gay marriage.
Their latest battle is with Blue Earth County. In February 2015, the county attorney sent them this letter saying their 1971 “marriage license was legally defective” and that “the marriage was not considered valid,” Michael McConnell said.
“I got married on September 3, 1971, and nobody can change that and it was all done legally under the laws that were enforced at that time in Minnesota,” McConnell said.
The couple’s marriage certificate, signed by their minister, is part of an exhibit featuring their recently donated archives at the University of Minnesota library. In 1971, Blue Earth County, after finding out that they had issued a marriage license to two men, never formally recorded the marriage. It’s something the couple fears may keep them from collecting social security or disability benefits.
“I wanted to be sure my social security benefits would be available to Jack if something happened to me and vice versa,” McConnell said.
The couple has appealed to the Social Security Administration and have not yet heard back. The Social Security website says the agency is currently working with the Justice Department to analyze the 2015 Supreme Court decision and how to handle same sex couples claims.
Retired Hamline Law Professor Joe Daly says social security’s handling of the Baker/McConnell claim could be precedent setting.
“Is it retroactive? How far will it go? What impact will it have on the Social Security Administration?” Daly said.
The Blue Earth County Attorney’s Office did not return our phone calls. The couple says they would not consider trying to get married now in order to straighten out the benefit issue. They say to do that would be admitting that 1971 marriage was illegal and that is something they won’t do.