While public opinion polls are shifting in favor of same sex marriage, the legal system has lagged behind. The Supreme Court took a big step to catch up on June 27, 2013 when it decided Hollingsworth v Perry and United States v Windsor. In those two cases, the Court affirmed the un-constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 and struck down a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act. But what did those cases really mean for same-sex couples in Tennessee? Neither legalized same sex marriage, but read together, the cases blaze the trail that non-traditional family lawyers will take moving forward.
In Hollingsworth v Perry, the Supreme Court held that the people who put Proposition 8 on California’s ballot didn’t have legal standing to litigate the case. In that case, the trial judge, Judge Walker, had previously held that an amendment to a state constitution that defined marriage as between one man and one woman violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Federal Constitution. This is the same language that is in Tennessee’s Constitution. By throwing out the case on the technical ground of standing, Judge Walker’s ruling is now the only opinion with legal force. While it isn’t binding outside of California, it’s the only opinion out there on the issue of how a marriage is defined, and it holds that defining it as being only between one man and one woman is unConstitutional.
The other major case was United States v Windsor – the challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, known as “DOMA.” In this case, the Supreme Court struck down Section 2 of DOMA, which prohibited same-sex spouses from receiving federal benefits. But the ruling does not address the broader implications of DOMA: whether a state can refuse to recognize a marriage licensed in a sister state. This is authorized under Section 3 of DOMA, and violates the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the US Constitution, which requires all states to honor the laws of their sister states.
So, the short answer to the question of what this means for same-sex couples seeking equal marital rights in Tennesee is: not that much. Change happens slowly, especially in our neck of the woods. Legal, equal recognition of same-sex marriage in Tennessee still has a long way to go. But now, same-sex couples have a road map to achieving marriage equality. A same-sex couple could walk down to their local courthouse, apply for a marriage license, and as soon as they were told “no,” they could sue. They could then cite Judge Walker’s opinion in support of their right to marry. They could draw an analogy between federal legitimation of their status as a committed couple for purposes of federal benefits with a mandate requiring states to recognize their relationships for all purposes. Or perhaps that couple who got married in Vermont could sue to force Tennessee to recognize their marriage under the full faith and credit clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Held Law Firm has fought for equal marital rights for same-sex couples for decades. We are excited by this news, and look forward to working to support these families in the years to come.