Tennessee must temporarily recognize three couples’ out-of-state gay marriages while they pursue a lawsuit seeking to overturn the state’s ban on acknowledging such unions.
In granting the couples’ request, U.S. District Judge Aleta A. Trauger in Nashville, Tennessee, emphasized she wasn’t making a final judgment on whether the legal challenge has merit.
Same-sex marriage is allowed in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Trauger’s ruling comes while judges in other states grapple with lawsuits challenging state bans on gay marriage as the issue heads back toward the U.S. Supreme Court, which set off the current round of litigation with two rulings last June.
Trauger said her order reflects only her best projection on whether the couples are likely to ultimately win the case, based on the evidence before her and the existing state of the law. Also, it doesn’t extend to all gay couples in Tennessee who got married elsewhere, only the three who sued.
Sharon Curtis-Flair, a spokeswoman for Tennessee Attorney General Robert E. Cooper, didn’t immediately respond to a voice-mail message after regular business hours yesterday seeking comment on the decision.
In one decision last June, the Supreme Court let stand a San Francisco federal judge’s ruling that California’s voter-enacted prohibition on gay marriage was unconstitutional. In the other, the high court struck down that portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act limiting U.S. recognition to those marriages comprised of one man and one woman. The high court stopped short of saying its ruling applied to the states.
Since the Supreme Court rulings, a state court judge in New Jersey and the legislatures of Hawaii and Illinois have legalized same-sex marriage in their states, while federal judges have said bans in Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia and Texas violate U.S. constitutional guarantees of equal protection. The federal rulings have been put on hold pending appeal.
U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn in Kentucky last month invalidated its ban on recognition of out of state gay unions, saying the law was unconstitutional. While Kentucky is appealing, Attorney General Jack Conway has removed himself from the case after saying he believed Heyburn’s decision was correct. The state has hired outside counsel.
Trauger cited Heyburn’s ruling in the decision yesterday.
Tennessee has a constitutional prohibition on recognizing marriages other than those of one man and one woman. The couples filed their complaint in October, saying the law violated their guarantee of equal protection under the law.
“We are overjoyed with the court’s ruling,” plaintiff Sophy Jesty said yesterday in a statement issued by the National Center for Gay and Lesbian Rights. “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.”
Jesty and Valeria Tanco, professors at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, met at Cornell University in New York in 2009 and wed in that state in 2011, according to yesterday’s ruling.
Tanco is due to deliver a child this month, the judge said. Jesty wouldn’t be recognized as the baby’s parent under Tennessee law.
The case is Tanco v. Haslam, 13-cv-1159, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee (Nashville).