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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 25 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 43
Tennessee couples sue state for marriage recognition
Section One
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Tennessee couples sue state for marriage recognition

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Four same-sex couples married in other states have sued the state of Tennessee in federal court, charging that Tennessee state law discriminates against them because of their sexual orientation.

The lawsuit, brought by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, was filed on October 21.

All the plaintiffs in the suit were legally married in New York or California, but subsequently moved to Tennessee. Matthew Mansell and Johno Espejo live in Franklin; Valeria Tanco and Sophy Jesty live in Knoxville; Army Reserve Sgt. Ijpe DeKoe and Thomas Kostura are based in Memphis; and Kellie Miller and Vanessa DeVillez live in Greenbrier.

In Tennessee, a statute passed in 1998 and a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2006 prohibit marriage between partners of the same gender.

EQUAL PROTECTION DENIED
In their suit, the couples charge that state law strips them and other 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 their rights taken away.

If they were opposite-sex couples married in New York or California, they say, the state of Tennessee would gladly recognize their marriages.

'All of a sudden, they're not married anymore,' their lawyer, Abby Rubenfeld, said. 'This case is about recognizing those marriages - it's a very simple issue.'

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 opposite-sex married couples can inherit such property tax-free. Same-sex couples also lack the right to make emergency medical decisions for each other.

'Like other families, we want to have rights and obligations and protections under the law,' Jesty told the Associated Press.

BABY ON THE WAY
Jesty moved to Tennessee with Tanco in 2011. Both work as professors of veterinary medicine at the University of Tennessee.

'Val and I are pregnant,' Jesty added. '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.'

Officials with the Tennessee Attorney General's Office, which will defend the state against the lawsuit, said it was too early to comment on the case.

'As we have noted before, the Supreme Court's DOMA decision did not invalidate state laws regarding marriage,' the Attorney General's spokesperson, Sharon Curtis-Flair, said.

Attorney 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,' she said. 'That's what we're aiming for. That's what's going to happen.'

OPPONENTS: JUST MOVE
Foes of marriage equality say there is a very simple solution to the couples' problem: Get out of Tennessee.

'California and New York had the right to define marriage as how their people saw fit, and so should the state of Tennessee,' said David Fowler, a former state senator and current president of the anti-Gay Family Action Council of Tennessee.

'The whole principle 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.'

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