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Baker v. Nelson

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Black and white photograph of Jack Baker and James Michael McConnell applying for a marriage license in Minneapolis, 1970.

Jack Baker and James Michael McConnell apply for a marriage license in Minneapolis, 1970.

When Jack Baker and Michael McConnell became the first same-sex couple in the United States to apply for a marriage license, in 1970, Hennepin County clerk Gerald R. Nelson rejected their application. They then sued Nelson, claiming a constitutional right to marry in what would become a landmark Supreme Court Case.

Baker and McConnell were introduced by a mutual friend in 1966. When Baker asked McConnell for a committed relationship, McConnell agreed only if they could be legally married. There had never been a legal same-sex marriage in the United States, but Baker promised to find a way. There was not a unified marriage equality movement within gay communities at that time. Many activists rejected the quest for legal marriage and focused on liberation from society.

In 1969, Baker enrolled in law school at the University of Minnesota. While doing research during his first semester, he discovered that the Minnesota marriage statutes did not mention gender, and therefore did not explicitly prohibit same-sex marriage. Baker and McConnell went to the courthouse to apply for a license on May 18, 1970. Hennepin County clerk Gerald R. Nelson allowed them to apply but refused to grant them a marriage license. The resulting publicity cost McConnell a job offer from the University of Minnesota libraries.

Late in 1970, Baker and McConnell filed a case against the Hennepin County District Court. They argued that since same-sex marriage was not explicitly illegal under Minnesota law, they must be issued a marriage license. In January of 1971, the District Court judge denied their motion without comment. Baker and McConnell appealed their case, known as Baker v. Nelson, to the Minnesota Supreme Court, claiming a constitutional right to marry.

Meanwhile, Baker discovered that adoption provides most of the legal familial benefits of marriage, and on August 3, 1971, McConnell adopted Baker. On the adoption papers, Baker legally changed his name to Pat Lyn McConnell. He chose a gender-neutral first name so that they could attempt to apply for another marriage license in a new county. There was no Minnesota law against marrying someone whom you had adopted.

The pair moved in with friends in Mankato to establish residence in Blue Earth County and applied for another marriage license there. This time, McConnell went to the court house alone. The clerk asked no questions about the gender of his intended, Pat Lyn, and issued the license.

Jack Baker (the name he used in practice) and McConnell married on September 3, 1971, by Methodist minister Roger Lynn. It was the first legal same-sex marriage in the United States.

On October 15, 1971, the justices of the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled on Baker v. Nelson, unanimously rejecting the couple’s appeal. The court’s opinion denied their claims for a constitutional right to marry based on the First, Eighth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments.

Baker and McConnell appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking them to rule on the issue of same-sex marriage for the first time. On October 10, 1972, the Supreme Court dismissed the case “for want of a substantial federal question” and upheld the state’s decision.

Baker and McConnell continued to be activists within their community. By 1980, however, they began to withdraw from the public eye to focus on their private life together and their careers. Baker practiced law and McConnell achieved the position of senior librarian within the Hennepin County Library System.

On May 13, 2014, over forty years after Baker and McConnell first applied for a license, Minnesota legalized same-sex marriage. On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the right to marry was guaranteed to same-sex couples by the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The majority decision declared, “Baker v. Nelson must be and now is overruled.”

After same-sex marriage became legal in Minnesota, Baker and McConnell did not apply for a new marriage license, since to do so would be to admit that their 1971 marriage was not legal. Even though Blue Earth County never contested the marriage in court, in 2014 the county stated that they never officially recorded the marriage and could not recognize it retroactively. As of 2016, the couple was considering legal action against Blue Earth County.

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Bowes, Claire. “Jack Baker and Michael McConnell: Gay Americans Who Married in 1971.” BBC News, July 4, 2013.
http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-23159390

Eckholm, Eric. “The Same-Sex Couple Who Got a Marriage License in 1971.” New York Times, May 16, 2015.
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/17/us/the-same-sex-couple-who-got-a-marriage-license-in-1971.html?_r=0

Freedom to Marry. How it Happened.
http://www.freedomtomarry.org/pages/how-it-happened

McConnell, Michael, Jack Baker, and Gail Langer Karwoski. The Wedding Heard ‘Round the World: America’s First Gay Marriage. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Minnesota Supreme Court Case File No. 43009
Minnesota Supreme Court
State Archives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/gr00088.xml
Description: Materials relating to the proceedings of Baker v. Nelson including opinion and briefs.

Mumford, Tracy. “For Mpls. Couple, Gay Marriage Ruling is a Victory 43 Years in the Making.” MPR News, July 16, 2015.
http://www.mprnews.org/story/2015/07/16/baker-mcconnell

Murphy, Esme. “Couple Considering Lawsuit Against Blue Earth County To Legalize Marriage.” CBS Minnesota, January 12, 2016.
http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2016/01/12/couple-considering-lawsuit-against-blue-earth-county-to-legalize-marriage/

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Jack Baker and James Michael McConnell applying for a marriage license in Minneapolis, 1970.
Black and white photograph of Jack Baker and James Michael McConnell applying for a marriage license in Minneapolis, 1970.
Black and white photograph of Jack Baker and James Michael McConnell applying for a marriage license in Minneapolis, 1970.
Black and white photograph of Jack Baker and James Michael McConnell applying for a marriage license in Minneapolis, 1970.
Black and white photograph of Jack Baker and James Michael McConnell applying for a marriage license in Minneapolis, 1970.
Black and white photograph of Jack Baker and James Michael McConnell applying for a marriage license in Minneapolis, 1970.
Black and white scan of Jack Baker’s poster for Student Body President campaign, 1971.
Black and white scan of Jack Baker’s poster for Student Body President campaign, 1971.
Black and white scan of Jack Baker’s poster for Student Body President campaign, 1971.
Black and white scan of Jack Baker’s poster for Student Body President campaign, 1971.

Turning Point

Jack Baker and Michael McConnell apply for a marriage license on May 18, 1971 and are denied by Hennepin County clerk Gerald R. Nelson.

Chronology

1966

Jack Baker and Michael McConnell meet on October 29 at a party near the University of Oklahoma in Norman. A mutual friend introduces them and tells them they are destined for each other.

1967

Baker asks McConnell to commit; McConnell agrees only if they can legally marry. There has never been a legal same-sex marriage in the United States, but Baker promises to find a way.

1969

Baker enrolls in the University of Minnesota’s School of Law.

1969

Baker becomes the president of the first gay student organization on campus, called FREE (Fight Repression of Erotic Expression). He pushes an aggressive campaign to put the group’s message and members in the media spotlight.

1970

Baker and McConnell apply for a marriage license on May 18 and are denied by Hennepin County clerk Gerald R. Nelson.

1970

Publicity from the marriage license request outs McConnell, causing the University of Minnesota to rescind a job offer on June 22. McConnell sues the University for job discrimination with the help of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union.

1970

With their friend and attorney, Mike Wetherbee, the couple files a writ of mandamus in the Hennepin County District Court, ordering the county to comply with the law and grant their marriage license.

1971

In January, the Hennepin County District Court denies Baker and McConnell’s motion, prompting them to appeal the case before the Minnesota Supreme Court, where they claim a constitutional right to marry.

1971

On April 8, Baker becomes the first gay man elected to the position of Student Body President of a university in the United States. This gains him national media attention.

1971

On August 3. McConnell legally adopts Baker, who changes his name to the gender neutral “Pat Lyn McConnell.”

1971

The couple moves to Blue Earth County. McConnell goes alone to apply for a new marriage license there on August 9. The clerk does not question the gender of his intended and grants the license.

1971

Baker and McConnell marry on September 3.

1971

On October 15, the Minnesota Supreme Court rules on Baker v. Nelson and denies the couple’s right to marry. The court denies their claims based on four different amendments, prompting them to appeal their case to the United States Supreme Court.

1972

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court chooses not to hear the case of McConnell v. Anderson, which allows the rejection of McConnell’s job offer to stand.

1972

On October 10, the Supreme Court dismisses Baker v. Nelson “for want of a substantial federal question,” with a single sentence. This upholds the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision and denies Baker and McConnell the right to marry.

2014

Minnesota legalizes same-sex marriage on May 13.

2015

On June 25, the U.S. Supreme Court rules on Obergefell v. Hodges and guarantees the constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry nationwide.