Shock! State Marriage Amendment Stands Against Court Challenge

Posted on August 27, 2014 in Marriage, Public Policy by

court challengeImagine my shock when I read that a state’s marriage amendment defining marriage as the union of one woman and one man was upheld in a federal court.

It’s not that I think such amendments aren’t Constitutional, quite the opposite. In fact I believe that each state has the sovereign right to decide for itself what the definition of marriage will be. I believe the federal government should stay out of the debate between states and refuse to interfere in the decision each state will make. I believe the people of each state – not a court or a single judge – should make the decision.

So my shock has nothing to do with the constitutionality of such amendments. Instead, my shock is that a federal court would actually uphold the will of the people rather than trample all over it as so many have already done.

A post at ScotusBlog reports:

“Roane County Circuit Judge Russell E. Simmons, Jr., of Kingston ruled in a case of two gay men who were married four years ago in Iowa and are now seeking a divorce in their home state of Tennessee.  Unlike every other court ruling — federal or state — since the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor in June 2013, the judge rejected the idea that the Windsor decision undercut state authority to ban same-sex marriages.”

The issue, at this point, was not that Tennessee didn’t recognize the same-sex “marriage” of the two men but, rather, because Tennessee did not recognize their “marriage” the state would not grant them a divorce. While some courts have used the Supreme Court’s 2013 Windsor ruling to demand that a state recognize a same-sex “marriage” and grant a divorce, Judge Simmons rightly understands the Windsor ruling and applies it here. He wrote:

“The Supreme Court does not go the final step and find that a state that defines marriage as a union of one man and one woman is unconstitutional.  Further, the Supreme Court does not find that one state’s refusal to accept another state’s valid same-sex marriage to be in violation of the U.S. Constitution.”

And because, as Judge Simmons wrote, the Supreme Court’s Windsor ruling explicitly allows states to determine what the laws will be regarding marriage, there was no reason for Judge Simmons or Tennessee to grant the two men a divorce. This is important because the only way a divorce can be granted is by first recognizing that a marriage exists. Judge Simmons realized this and refused to grant the divorce in keeping with the law in Tennessee which does not recognize same-sex “marriage.”

Judge Simmons further relies on the landmark 1972 Baker V. Nelson case from Minnesota as further evidence that there is no need for Tennessee to recognize same-sex “marriage” or grant a divorce. He said:

“Baker holds that a state’s law on same-sex marriage does not violate the equal protection or substantive due process rights under the United States Constitution. Although the United States Supreme Court has had opportunities to overrule the Baker decision, it has refused to take that position even in the decision on which the plaintiff relies, which is United States v. Windsor.”

While most people know of the 2013 Windsor ruling, sadly, they do not know about the 1972 Nelson V. Baker ruling that has bene upheld to this day. Some judges and courts seek to limit the ruling or ignore it altogether. The fact that the Supreme Court has not overturned that decision speaks volumes however.

This ruling from Tennessee breaks a string of rulings which declared state marriage amendments unconstitutional. In the 14 months following the Windsor ruling we’ve seen an unprecedented level of judicial activism as judge after judge oversteps the bounds of judicial authority and misinterprets the Supreme Court’s ruling in order to advance a particular political ideology.

But this ruling shows how rightly applying both the Nelson V. Baker and the Windsor rulings makes it clear that states have the right to determine the definition of marriage for themselves. Furthermore, it should be the people, not judges or courts that make the decision.

I applaud Judge Simmons for his ruling. I’m sure many are not happy with him and don’t find it popular, but it was the right ruling.

It remains to be seen how this ruling will impact other cases. Perhaps other courts will utilize the logic and common sense of Judge Simmons’ ruling to defend other state marriage amendments. For me, living in West Virginia where there is currently a challenge to our DOMA law in federal court, I can only hope the court will see this decision and think twice. I wish we had a marriage amendment, but our lawmakers have consistently refused to allow the people of West Virginia to vote on such an amendment. In essence, they have held our state constitution hostage.

Here’s hoping other state marriage amendments stand up to the challenges they are bound to face in federal courts.

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