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Family & Relationships

Same-Sex Couples File Marriage Recognition Lawsuit in Tennessee

(Nashville, TN, October 21, 2013)—Today, four legally married same-sex couples who live in Tennessee filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Nashville, challenging Tennessee laws that prevent the state from recognizing their marriages and treating them the same as all other legally married couples in Tennessee. The couples, who include a full-time Army reservist and his husband and two professors of veterinary medicine, all formerly lived and married in other states and later moved to Tennessee to pursue careers and make new homes for their families. Tennessee law currently prohibits recognition of their marriages and treats the couples as legal strangers.

The lawsuit argues that Tennessee’s laws prohibiting recognition of the couples’ marriages 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 are Dr. Valeria Tanco and Dr. Sophy Jesty  of Knoxville; Army Reserve Sergeant First Class Ijpe DeKoe and Thom Kostura of Memphis; Kellie and Vanessa Miller-DeVillez of Greenbrier; and Matthew Mansell and Johno Espejo of Franklin. The couples are represented by Nashville attorneys Abby R. Rubenfeld, William Harbison, Scott Hickman, Phil Cramer and John Farringer of the law firm of Sherrard & Roe, the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), and attorneys Maureen T. Holland of Memphis and Regina Lambert of Knoxville.

“Getting married not only enabled us to express our love and commitment to one another, but it also provided us with the protections we would need as we started our new lives together,” said Dr. Jesty, who moved to Tennessee with her wife in 2011 to accept a teaching position at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville, where her spouse also teaches. “When we moved to Tennessee, we lost those protections. Now that Val is pregnant with our first child, having those protections is more important than ever.”

Sergeant DeKoe, who served a tour of duty in Afghanistan, said: “Fairness and equality are the guiding principles of our government, and as a member of the armed forces, I have fought and will continue to fight for those principles. After returning to Memphis with Thom, I was saddened to learn that Tennessee law does not live up to those ideals in the way it treats married same-sex couples.”

“When we decided to move to Tennessee, I was excited to move back home and return to my former job,” said Kellie Miller-DeVillez. “We did our best to prepare ourselves when we realized that Tennessee would not recognize our marriage, but we could have never anticipated all the negative ways it has affected us, from big things like not being considered each other’s next of kin for purposes of making medical decisions to small, but important things like not being able to change our driver’s licenses to reflect our married name. Every day, we are reminded that Tennessee does not value our commitment or our family.”

“We moved to Nashville when my employer decided to relocate me to Nashville. It has been painful to have the state where we live refuse to recognize our marriage. What has been more painful is seeing our kids trying to make sense of it all and never knowing whether our marriage will be respected as we go through our daily lives.”

Said attorney Rubenfeld: “Tennessee is the volunteer state—it is our tradition to honor and applaud those who voluntarily move here to enjoy the benefits of this great state—not deny them benefits and respect afforded them in other states. Tennessee traditionally values fairness and family. The time has come for Tennessee law to be true to those values by including same-sex couples who legally married before moving to Tennessee because this state is as much their home as it is ours. We believe that the United States Constitution requires that Tennessee law treat married same-sex couples like all other married couples. Today, we ask the courts to reaffirm that dignity and respect are core values in Tennessee and that our anti-marriage recognition laws conflict with those values.”

“Tennessee recognizes the marriages and families of all other couples that were married out-of-state” said Harbison, a partner at Sherrard & Roe. “It is wrong and unfair for Tennessee law to single out these legally married couples and treat them as legal strangers to one another simply because of who they are.”

Added NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter: “Married couples should be able to travel and to live in any state knowing that their family is protected. Tennessee’s current law hurts same-sex couples and their children without helping anyone.”

More About the Plaintiffs

Dr. Valeria Tanco and Dr. Sophy Jesty met in 2009 and were married in New York in 2011. Valeria is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine and Sophy is an Assistant Professor of Veterinary Medicine, also at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. The couple moved to Knoxville, Tennessee in 2011 and is expecting their first child in spring 2014.

Sergeant Ijpe DeKoe and Thomas Kostura met when they were teenagers and later started dating. They married in New York in 2011. Ijpe is a Sergeant First Class and full-time reservist in the Army Reserves, and Thom is a student in the Memphis College of Arts’ master of fine arts program. The couples moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 2013.

Kellie and Vanessa Miller-DeVillez met in 2003 and were married in New York in 2011. Kellie is a legal assistant at a law firm, and Vanessa is an energy manager. The couple moved to Greenbrier, Tennessee in 2013.

Matthew Mansell and Johno Espejo met in 1995 and were married in California in 2008. Matthew is a conflicts analyst at a law firm, and Johno is a stay-at-home dad and works part-time at the local YMCA. The couples moved to Franklin, Tennessee in 2012 with their two children, who now are 5 and 6 years old.

Read more about the case.

Read the complaint.

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