American Samoa questions gay marriage validity in territory

In this Jan. 10, 2015 photo, American Samoa Attorney General Talauega Eleasalo Ale poses for a photo during an event honoring teachers in Pago Pago, American Samoa. (Fili Sagapolutele/AP Photo).
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PAGO PAGO, American Samoa — American Samoa is the only U.S. territory to hold out against the recent Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage.

As the Pacific island’s attorney general reviews the decision, legal observers and gay rights advocates are saying it should go into effect immediately.

“It should be unquestioned,” said Rose Cuison Villazor, a professor at University of California, Davis’ law school and an expert on territorial law. “The Supreme Court’s decision was pretty strong.”

But American Samoa Attorney General Talauega Eleasalo Ale hasn’t been ready to take that step.

“We’re still reviewing the decision to determine its applicability to American Samoa, and I have no specific comments at this time,” he said.

Asked if same-sex marriage is legal in the territory, Ale said, “I don’t know. We’re reviewing the law.”

U.S. territories have some self-governance rights. The right to marry, however, isn’t a question of self-governance, said Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, staff attorney for national gay rights group Lambda Legal.

“This is a question of individual right, individual liberty,” he said.

Other U.S. territories have voluntarily complied with the Supreme Court decision.

In Puerto Rico, Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla signed an executive order soon after the ruling. U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp has signed a similar executive order. In Guam, there is no effort to ignore or challenge the ruling, said territorial legislative Vice Speaker Benjamin F. Cruz, who is gay. The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands is also supporting the decision.

As of Thursday, no one has applied for a same-sex marriage license in American Samoa, according to the island’s Office of Vital Statistics.

Christian churches with conservative social views dominate in American Samoa, home to about 50,000, and the government’s motto is “Samoa, Let God Be First.” Yet the territory has a tradition of embracing faafafine — males who are raised as females and take on feminine traits.

There are many faafafine who aren’t supportive of gay marriage out of “respect for our Samoan culture and religious beliefs,” said well-known faafafine Princess Auvaa.

The lack of marriage license applications by same-sex couples shouldn’t be taken to mean no one in American Samoa desires gay marriage, said Villazor, the professor.

“I would think there are cultural barriers to begin with. The AG might present some other legal and social barriers, too,” she said.

For gay marriage to be recognized in American Samoa, there needs to be a voluntary decision or litigation, said Chimene Keitner, an expert on territorial status issues at University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

Litigation would require “plaintiffs who have been denied the right to marry and are willing to take a public position on that and challenge their inability to marry,” she said.

Plaintiffs could also be those who were married elsewhere and want the marriage recognized in American Samoa, she said.

Auvaa said she wants gay marriage to be legal in American Samoa. If it’s determined that it is, she said, “I would be the first person to apply for a marriage license — if I had a boyfriend who would agree to marriage.”

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