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String of same-sex marriage rulings broken

For the first time in nearly fourteen months, a state’s ban on same-sex marriage has withstood a constitutional challenge in court.  A state judge in Tennessee ruled last week that “neither the Federal Government nor another state should be allowed to dictate to Tennessee what has traditionally been a state’s responsibility.”  The decision, issued last Tuesday, has just become available in electronic format.

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.

More than two dozen courts, from trial courts to state supreme courts and federal appeals courts, have faced that constitutional issue, and the string of decisions nullifying the bans was unbroken until the Tennessee decision.

Although Judge Simmons’s decision was limited to cases involving a divorce when the marriage itself is not recognized, he ruled in sweeping terms.  He relied in part upon the Supreme Court’s summary decision in 1972 rejecting a constitutional challenge to a Minnesota ban, concluding that the Justices have never abandoned that ruling.

To the argument that more recent gay rights decisions have undercut that precedent, the Tennessee judge responded that the issue should more properly be raised in an appellate court with broader authority than that of a trial judge.

The decision also interpreted the Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor as not controlling in a case such as the one before him.  “The Supreme Court,” he wrote, “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.”

Besides rejecting a challenge to the Tennessee ban based on a claim of illegal discrimination, Judge Simmons turned aside an argument that the Constitution’s Full Faith and Credit Clause required Tennessee to recognize a same-sex marriage performed in another state.

While Tennessee’s ban applies to both same-sex marriage in the first instance and state recognition of already-existing marriages, the judge’s decision formally dealt only with the latter, upholding the non-recognition clause in the Tennessee constitution and in state laws.

The constitutionality of the non-recognition part of the Tennessee ban is being reviewed now by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.  That was included among cases heard last week by a three-judge panel.

(NOTE: The blog thanks a reader for diligent efforts, over several days, to obtain an electronic copy of the Tennessee decision.)


Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, String of same-sex marriage rulings broken, SCOTUSblog (Aug. 11, 2014, 3:14 PM),