NASHVILLE — On the same day that New Jersey began allowing same-sex couples to marry, four Tennessee couples filed a federal lawsuit seeking to force the Volunteer State to recognize their legal marriages.The lawsuit, sponsored by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, argues that Tennessee law discriminates based on sexual orientation.
State law strips same-sex couples of their constitutional rights to due process, equal protection under the law and the right to travel or relocate to another state without having one's rights taken away, the couples argue in their lawsuit.
"All of the sudden, they're not married anymore," lawyer Abby Rubenfeld said. "This case is about recognizing those marriages, it's a very simple issue."
To bolster the case, the lawsuit relies heavily upon the U.S. Supreme Court's March decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, which forced the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages from states where it is legal.
The four couples taking part in the suit were married in New York or California, where same-sex marriages are legal, but moved to Tennessee. The couples hail from across the state: Matthew Mansell and Johno Espejo of Franklin, about 20 miles south of Nashville; Drs. Valeria Tanco and Sophy Jesty of Knoxville; Ijpe DeKoe and Thomas Kostura of Memphis; and Kellie Miller and Vanessa DeVillez of Greenbrier, about 20 miles north of Nashville.
Officials with the Tennessee Attorney General's Office, which will defend the state against the lawsuit, said it was too early to comment. The lawsuit was filed in federal court here.
"As we have noted before, the Supreme Court's DOMA decision did not invalidate state laws regarding marriage," spokeswoman Sharon Curtis-Flair said.
In Tennessee, a state law passed in 1998 and constitutional amendment that voters passed in 2006 prohibit marriage between partners of the same gender.
The couples say Tennessee law has real-life consequences for them. Same-sex couples are taxed on jointly owned property if one spouse dies, whereas married couples can inherit such property tax free.
Jesty, who moved to Tennessee with Tanco in 2011 where both work as veterinary professors at the University of Tennessee, said they also can't be involved in their spouse's medical decisions.
"Like other families, we want to have rights and obligations and protections under the law," she said. "Val and I are pregnant. We're expecting our baby girl in March, and honestly it's frightening to me to consider if something goes wrong at the time of the delivery because as it stands right now I don't have a legal right to make decisions on Val's behalf, decisions on our baby's behalf."
David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, is one of the architects of the efforts to narrowly define marriage, a definition he says should stand in the state.
"California and New York had the right to define marriage as how their people saw fit, and so should the state of Tennessee," said Fowler, a former state senator. "The whole principal of federalism is that if one state has laws that are different than that of another state, then you are free to vote with your feet."
Rubenfeld said the lawsuit is just the first step toward legalizing same-sex marriage in Tennessee.
"It's our position that, once we win this lawsuit, once there's recognition of these marriages, the next step is going to be people can go out and get married in Tennessee," Rubenfeld said. "That's what we're aiming for. That's what's going to happen.”