Federal Suits Ask for Recognition of Same-Sex Marriages

Oct 22, 2013

Dr. Sophy Jesty, left, and Dr. Valeria Tanco of Knoxville speak outside the Davidson County courthouse in Nashville on October, 21, 2013. The two are plaintiffs in a lawsuit over Tennessee's ban on same-sex marriage.
Credit Shelley Mays, Nashville Tennessean

Four gay couples filed lawsuits in federal district court in Nashville on Monday, seeking to compel the state to recognize their marriages.

All four couples, including one from Knoxville, were married in states that offer same-sex marriage, then moved to Tennessee. Attorneys representing the couples say the state's constitutional ban of same-sex marriage denies their clients some basic legal protections straight couples in Tennessee already possess.

“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 to small things like not being able to change our driver’s licenses to reflect our married name,” plaintiff Kellie Miller said in a statement.

Tennessee is one of 29 states whose constitutions include a provision banning same-sex marriage. There has been widespread speculation about the ultimate fate of those laws in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's historic decisions in June that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8 ban. The Supreme Court's decisions helped clarify federal law, but left a patchwork of state laws that vary widely.

"We believe that the United States Constitution requires that Tennessee law treat married same-sex couples like all other married couples," said attorney Abby Rubenfeld. She's one of seven lawyers that filed the suit along with the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

The conversation over gay rights in Tennessee has been on an upswing this year. In September, the state received attention for its refusal to update drivers' license information to reflect name changes for married same-sex couples. This month, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean said granting spousal benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian city employees was "the right thing to do." In January, Knoxville will be the first major city in Tennessee to allow partners of gay employees to be covered under spousal benefit packages.