Same-sex marriage takes center stage at Supreme Court

wedding ringsWASHINGTON — On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Tanco v. Haslam (same-sex marriage) and consolidated petitions from Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.

The court agreed to address two questions:

  • Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex?
  • Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state?

The four cases are on appeal after the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned district court rulings struck down the states’ marriage bans. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ November 2014 decision marked the only time a federal appeals court has ruled in favor of state marriage bans.

“As Justice Anthony Kennedy said in the Windsor case, this is a struggle over whether our families are equal or whether they are second class,” said Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin.

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slattery III said, “We asked that the court let the Sixth Circuit decision stand; however, we respect the court’s decision to grant review. We will follow the court’s briefing and argument schedule and continue to aggressively represent the state’s interest as we have throughout the process.”

It is expected that oral argument will take place this spring, with a ruling likely to come in June.

Four cases

Kentucky: On Feb. 12, 2014, U.S. District Court Judge John G. Heyburn II ruled in Bourke v. Beshear that Kentucky’s marriage ban violates the constitutional principal of equal protection and that the Common-wealth cannot refuse to recognize valid same-sex marriages performed in other states.

The judge sided with four plaintiff couples who had legally married elsewhere before seeking state recognition in Kentucky. Soon after, two unmarried same-sex couples were permitted to intervene in the case. The case was renamed Love v. Beshear and on July 1, 2014, Heyburn again ruled against Kentucky’s marriage ban.

Michigan: On March 21, 2014, U.S. District Judge Bernard A. Fried-man ruled against Michigan’s ban on marriage equality in DeBoer v. Snyder. In the next 24 hours, more than 300 same-sex couples across the state were married until the Sixth Circuit granted a stay.

The case was filed by April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, who wanted to jointly adopt the three children they were raising as foster parents.

Judge Friedman as the presiding judge expanded the challenge to the constitutionality of the state’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples.

The DeBoer ruling also dealt a blow to the credibility of Mark Regnerus, who testified during the trial as a witness for the state after authoring a parenting study funded by anti-gay groups.

In his ruling, Judge Friedman wrote, “The Court finds Regnerus’s testimony entirely unbelievable and not worthy of serious consideration.”

Ohio: On Dec. 23, 2013, U.S. District Judge Timothy Black ruled in Obergefell v. Himes that Ohio’s refusal to recognize the marriage of a same-sex couple who married in another jurisdiction is unconstitutional.

The case was filed in July 2013, by attorney Al Gerhardstein on behalf of Jim Obergefell and John Arthur, who were seeking recognition of their Maryland marriage on John’s death certificate, before John’s death.

The court ordered the state to recognize the marriage when John died on Oct. 22, 2013.

Gerhardstein is joined by the ACLU and ACLU of Ohio in this case.

On April 14, 2014, Judge Black ruled in another Ohio marriage case — Henry v. Himes, ruling that the state must recognize all marriages of same-sex couples performed in other jurisdictions.

Tennessee: On March 14, 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger ordered Tennessee state officials to recognize the out-of-state marriages of three same-sex couples. Trauger did not stay her ruling, noting that the plaintiff couples would likely be victorious in future appeals and challenges. The Sixth Circuit later stayed the ruling.

Why it matters

Without legal marriage recognition, same-sex couples face issues in:

  • Moving to a state without same-sex marriage rights. Their new home state may not recognize their marriage.
  • Keeping property upon a death. Same-sex couples face barriers in having property automatically transfer to a surviving spouse when one dies.
  • Receiving healthcare information and access to a hospitalized partner.
  • Having parental rights. Barring same-sex marriage frequently interferes with the non-biological parent being recognized as a parent. This harms children by denying them access to social security benefits, insurance coverage, emergency decision-making, medical care and more. It also affects adoption and custody.
  • Filing state income taxes. Legally married same-sex couples living in a state that doesn’t recognize their marriage will generally have to file separate state income taxes.
  • Obtaining the spouse’s employer benefits. Without legal marriage, employers aren’t required to allow their employees to list same-sex spouses or partners as beneficiaries of benefits, including health insurance.
  • Accessing Social Security benefits. Even legally married same-sex couples aren’t able to access Social Security benefits if they live in a state that doesn’t recognize their marriage.
  • Accessing veterans’ benefits. The Veterans Administration only recognizes married same-sex couples who currently live in marriage equality states.
  • Preserving family unity when using emergency services. Without marriage, emergency shelters can separate families — even a parent from children if he or she has no legal claim to them.

Sources: Press releases from the Tennessee Attorney General’s office and the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality.