Tennessee's Gay Marriage Recognition Ruling Narrow But Important

State ordered to acknowledge three same-sex weddings from other states.


The market for gay wedding stock photos is really taking off.
Credit: © Amy Walters | Dreamstime.com

Another federal judge has gotten involved in a state's same-sex marriage recognition ban. This time, in Tennessee, U.S. District Court Judge Aleta A. Trauger very narrowly ruled Friday that the state cannot apply its ban to three gay couples who were legally married in other states.

Similar to a recent decision in Kentucky, the ruling (PDF) does not require Tennessee to hand out licenses to gay couples and start marrying them off. Rather, the judge is requiring the state to recognize three gay marriages legally performed elsewhere.

Or, rather, the judge has granted a preliminary injunction forbidding Tennessee from applying its ban on recognition to the three couples named in a lawsuit against the state. Court rulings, huh? The judge ruled that the lawsuit is likely to win its challenge to the state's law moving forward, and so she is implementing the injunction to prevent any harms that may occur to the couples in the lawsuit due to Tennessee's ban. A woman in one of the couples is pregnant. If something happens to her, would the state be able to acknowledge her partner as the child's other mother? That's one of the reasons Trauger gives for her injunction.

Trauger invoked last year's United States v. Windsor Supreme Court ruling, where the majority determined that the federal government cannot refuse to recognize same-sex marriages from states where it's legal. The judge wrote it's likely the same rule would apply to Tennessee as well. In her summary, Trauger concluded: "At some point in the future, likely with the benefit of additional precedent from circuit courts and, perhaps, the Supreme Court, the court will be asked to make a final ruling on the plaintiffs' claims. At this point, all signs indicate that, in the eyes of the United States Constitution, the plaintiffs' marriages will be placed on an equal footing with those of heterosexual couples and that proscriptions against same-sex marriage will soon become a footnote in the annals of American history."

I'm not entirely sure another Supreme Court ruling may be necessary on gay marriage with the way things are moving, though I still expect one to come within five years. I'm not sure the Supreme Court actually has to rule that same-sex marriage must be legally recognized in all 50 states. All it has to do is rule that United States v. Windsor applies to the states as well. That means states have to recognize other states' legal marriages. At that point, it would be silly for any state to continue to refuse to hand out its own wedding licenses to gay couples. If it were legally required to recognize and offer the same benefits to gay couples who were wed in other states, it would be kind of pointless not to just allow it themselves. Of course, it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility for any state, out of pettiness, to cling to such a rule and require its residents to trek to other states to get legally wed.