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Family & Relationships

Federal Court Orders Tennessee to Recognize Marriages of Same-Sex Couples While Their Legal Challenge Proceeds

(Nashville, TN, March 14, 2014)—Today, a federal district court in Nashville, Tennessee ruled that Tennessee officials must recognize the marriages of three same-sex couples who moved to Tennessee after legally marrying in other states. The ruling provides immediate protection for the couples while the suit they filed in October challenging Tennessee’s failure to recognize same-sex couples’ marriages remains pending.  The court found that Tennessee’s refusal to recognize the couples’ valid marriages fails to protect them and likely violates the United States Constitution.

Tennessee now joins several other states—including Utah, Oklahoma, Ohio, Virginia, Illinois, Kentucky, and Texas—in which a federal court has ruled that states must allow same-sex couples to marry or recognize the marriages of couples who married in other states since the Supreme Court’s ruling last June requiring the federal government to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples. Every federal court to have considered such a challenge since the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in United States v. Windsor has ruled in favor of the freedom to marry for same-sex couples.

In her ruling today, U.S. District Judge Aleta A. Trauger took note of these earlier decisions, writing:  “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.”

The couples filed a federal lawsuit on October 21, 2013 alleging that Tennessee’s failure to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples violates the federal Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process and the constitutionally protected right to travel between and move to other states. The couples filed a motion in November 2013 to seek immediate protection while their case proceeds. In granting that motion today, Judge Trauger held that Tennessee’s laws prohibiting the state from acknowledging the equal dignity of the married couples’ relationships and families likely would cause them significant and irreparable harm, including because one of the couples is expecting a baby within days and urgently needs the legal protection and security of having both partners recognized as legal parents, as other married couples in Tennessee are recognized.

The 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.

The couples are represented by attorneys Abby R. Rubenfeld of Nashville, William Harbison, Scott Hickman, Phil Cramer, and John Farringer of the law firm of Sherrard & Roe in Nashville, Maureen T. Holland of Memphis, Regina Lambert of Knoxville, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR).

Dr. Jesty said: “We are overjoyed with the court’s ruling. 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. 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.”

Sgt. DeKoe said: “Having had the privilege to serve my country both at home and abroad in defense of the values this country treasures, I am proud that Thom and I will finally be treated with the same dignity Tennessee affords other married couples. Because of this ruling, we can rest assured that our relationship will be respected in all aspects of our lives not only by our friends and neighbors and the federal government, but also by our home state of Tennessee.”

Added attorney Rubenfeld: “This is a very significant ruling for Tennessee. The Court has correctly required Tennessee to live up to its basic values of fairness and family. The judge’s ruling correctly concludes that excluding same-sex couples from state sanctioned marriage violates fundamental notions of dignity and respect protected by the United States Constitution for all Americans, including the families of same sex couples.”

Attorney Harbison said: “We share our clients’ excitement about today’s ruling. Judge Trauger’s analysis recognizes the significant harms these laws cause, which are contrary to Tennessee’s stated interest in protecting families and children.”

NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter said: “Today’s decision marks yet another recognition by a federal court that there is no reasonable justification for laws that treat same-sex couples differently and cause so much harm to their families.  The courts’ decisions also reflect a broader societal movement toward respect for same-sex couples and their families.  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.”

Read the decision and learn more about the case.

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