March 14, 2014 | by Chris Johnson
Court: Tenn. must recognize gay couples’ marriages
Regnerus, gay juror, National LGBT Bar Association, Gay News, Washington Blade

A federal court has ordered Tennessee to recognize the same-sex marriages of six gay couples (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

A federal judge in Tennessee issued a preliminary injunction ordering the state to recognize same-sex marriages performed out-of-state — but only for the six plaintiff couples named in the lawsuit.

In a 20-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger, a Clinton appointee, handed down the decision without making a final determination on whether the state’s anti-recognition laws are constitutional, but says they likely won’t stand up in court.

“The plaintiffs’ Motion for Preliminary Injunction will be granted, and the court will issue an injunction against the defendants, prohibiting them from enforcing the Anti-Recognition Laws against the six plaintiffs in this case,” Trauger writes.

Trauger suggests she’ll wait to issue a final determination after more courts in her circuit issue rulings on same-sex marriage, but adds the trajectory of recent decisions in other jurisdictions bodes well for same-sex couples.

“At some point in the future, likely with the benefit of additional precedent from circuit courts and, perhaps, the Supreme Court, the court will be asked to make a final ruling on the plaintiffs’ claims,” Trauger said. “At this point, all signs indicate that, in the eyes of the United States Constitution, the plaintiffs’ marriages will be placed on an equal footing with those of heterosexual couples and that proscriptions against same-sex marriage will soon become a footnote in the annals of American history.”

The lawsuit, known as Tanco v. Haslam, was filed in October by private attorneys and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Three same-sex couples are named in the lawsuit; each lived and were legally married in another state before moving to Tennessee. The couples filed a motion for preliminary injunction in November 2013 seeking immediate protection while their case proceeds.

The three couples are Dr. Valeria Tanco and Dr. Sophy Jesty of Knoxville; Army Reserve Sergeant First Class Ijpe DeKoe and Thom Kostura of Memphis; and Matthew Mansell and Johno Espejo of Franklin. Although the case was originally filed on behalf of four couples, Erik Olvera, an NCLR spokesperson, said one couple dropped out for personal reasons.

Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said the decision “marks yet another recognition” in a string of decisions that determined laws barring same-sex couples from marriage have no reasonable justification.

“The courts’ decisions also reflect a broader societal movement toward respect for same-sex couples and their families,” Minter said. “As people have gotten to know the same-sex couples who are their neighbors, co-workers, relatives, and friends, they have come to see the unfairness of laws that deny protection to loving, stable relationships and stigmatize children being raised by same-sex parents.”

In her decision, Trauger reflects on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision against the Defense of Marriage Act, saying the overwhelming case law following the ruling has led courts to determine state laws barring same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.

“In light of this rising tide of persuasive post-Windsor federal caselaw, it is no leap to conclude that the plaintiffs here are likely to succeed in their challenge to Tennessee’s Anti- Recognition Laws,” Trauger said.

Dave Smith, a spokesperson for Gov. Bill Haslem, said the opinion is “under review” when asked if the decision will be appealed, but conveyed the sense that his boss isn’t happy with the decision.

 ”The opinion is under review,” Smith said. “The governor is disappointed that the court has stepped in when Tennesseans have voted clearly on this issue. It’s inappropriate to comment further due to the continuing litigation.”

Sharon Curtis-Flair, a spokesperson for Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper, Jr., expressed a similar sentiment.

“We are reviewing the decision and intend to take all necessary steps to defend the law,” Curtis-Flair said.

Although courts in the Second Circuit and Ninth Circuit have issued rulings saying laws related to sexual orientation should be subject to heightened scrutiny, or a greater assumption they’re unconstitutional, Trauger doesn’t apply that standard because she suspects Tennessee’s marriage ban fails the lower standard of “rational basis” review.

“The court finds that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their equal protection challenge, even under a ‘rational basis’ standard of review,” Trauger writes. “For this reason, the court need not address at this stage whether sexual orientation discrimination merits a heightened standard of constitutional review or whether the plaintiffs are likely to prevail on their additional due process and right to travel challenges.”

Jesty, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said she and her spouse are “overjoyed with the ruling” because it will enable them to receive protections afforded to other opposite-sex couples in similar situations.

“As a result of this order, our daughter will never know a time when her bonds with her loving parents were not protected or the state saw her family as less worthy than other families,” Jesty said. ”We look forward to the resolution of this case so that all married same-sex couples in Tennessee can have the protections that we were granted today.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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