LGBTQ rights activists push the Navajo Nation to repeal its same-sex marriage ban

SALT LAKE CITY -- Activists are pressing Navajo Nation leaders to repeal a  longstanding ban on same-sex marriage and expand protections for LGBTQ people on tribal lands.

"It’s going to take the Navajo people to change its own laws," Alray Nelson of Diné Equality, an LGBTQ rights group on the Navajo Nation, told FOX 13.

The call to repeal the Diné Marriage Act came out of the Navajo Nation's most recent Pride celebration, where 6,000 attended. He said it would go a long way to help young LGBTQ people who struggle to find acceptance and sometimes attempt suicide.

"In 2005, the Navajo Nation Council and a group of very conservative, evangelical tribal lawmakers pushed forward that law which continues to be the law of the land today," Nelson said.

Diné Equality has sought to repeal the marriage act for years. While they could pursue a challenge through the tribal courts, Nelson said he believes a better approach is with the Navajo Nation Council.

"These lawmakers are a little bit more progressive thinking and feel that now is the time for the Navajo Nation to be on the right side of history," he said.

The effort to repeal the Diné Marriage Act comes four years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges, which struck down same-sex marriage bans across America. But those rulings stop at tribal borders because of a number of congressional acts and court rulings about Native American sovereignty, said Alex Skibine, a professor of law at the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law.

"The Constitution is not applicable to them except for things like the 13th Amendment, the anti-slavery amendment," he said.

Skibine said most tribes do try to mirror state laws around their borders.

"A lot of the states used to prohibit same-sex marriage. Now they cannot," he said. "It’s interesting because the tribes are going to have address that."

Being one of the largest tribes, the Navajo Nation's decisions on LGBTQ rights could have a significant impact.

"I believe it’s going to send a ripple effect across Indian country. I believe the 500 plus other tribal nations across the United States will follow," Nelson said.

At Utah Governor Gary Herbert's recent Native American Summit, Navajo Nation Vice-President Myron Lizer told FOX 13 he was not in support of repealing the marriage act.

"I’m a former pastor so my feelings on that is that it God initiated marriage between a man and a woman. We would hold to that. I don’t want to put down other people’s feelings on that, I just kind of I go back to the truth of the Bible and what does that say. So God’s always the bottom line for me," he said.

Nelson said he thinks that if a repeal and LGBTQ protections got through the council to the president and vice-president, they would support it. He said both campaigned with outreach to LGBTQ Navajos.

Nelson said his group is not seeking to implement same-sex marriage on the Navajo Nation. Instead, he is pushing for other basic protections for people in regards to sexual orientation and gender identity.

"We’re not going to take on this debate, this conversation on gay marriage anymore," he told FOX 13. "We’ve moved past that as a community. All that we’re saying is you need to repeal that law and a way of repealing it is by introducing a new law that would delete the Diné Marriage Act and reaffirm our community."

So far, the Navajo Nation Council's Law and Order Committee gave its support to the Equality Act moving through the United States Congress. The Council could consider more legislation in the fall.

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