Same-sex couples file marriage recognition lawsuit in Tennessee

On October 21, four Tennessee same-sex couples, legally married in other states, filed a lawsuit in federal district court challenging the Tennessee laws that prevent the state from recognizing their marriages and treating them the same as all other legally married couples in Tennessee.

Tennessee law currently prohibits recognition of their marriages and treats the couples as legal strangers.  

The lawsuit argues that Tennessee’s laws prohibiting recognition of the couples’ marriages violates the federal Constitution's guarantees of equal protection and due process and the constitutionally protected right to travel between and move to other states. 

The couples are Dr. Valeria Tanco and Dr. Sophy Jesty of Knoxville; Army Reserve Sergeant First Class Ijpe DeKoe and Thom Kostura of Memphis ; Kellie Miller and Vanessa DeVillez of Greenbrier; and Matthew Mansell and Johno Espejo of Franklin. 

The couples are represented by Nashville attorneys Abby R. Rubenfeld, William Harbison, Scott Hickman, Phil Cramer and John Farringer of the law firm of Sherrard & Roe, the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), and attorneys Maureen T. Holland of Memphis and Regina Lambert of Knoxville. 

“Tennessee recognizes the marriages and families of all other couples that were married out-of-state,” said Harbison, a partner at Sherrard & Roe, in a press release. “It is wrong and unfair for Tennessee law to single out these legally married couples and treat them as legal strangers to one another simply because of who they are.”

Plaintiffs from the suit held a Nashville press conference on October 21 where they were asked about the difficulties they and their families have faced trying to navigate their marriage under Tennessee Law.

Dr. Valeria Tanco and Dr. Sophia Jesty, who both teach at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville, explained the hardships they faced in Tennessee as they expect their first child. “When we were able to conceive and I became pregnant, health insurance became a very important thing,” explained Tanco. “_We_ were covered but we were trying to get under a family plan and working at a state institution, we were denied.”

Like Tanco and Jesty, Kellie Miller and Vanessa DeVillez, also experienced difficulties in maintaining partner coverage for health benefits.

Matthew Mansell, who has two small children with his partner, spoke about the difficulties of explaining to their young children why they are not married in Tennessee.

Sergeant DeKoe, who served a tour of duty in Afghanistan but was not in attendance, said in a press release: “Fairness and equality are the guiding principles of our government, and as a member of the armed forces, I have fought and will continue to fight for those principles. After returning to Memphis with Thom, I was saddened to learn that Tennessee law does not live up to those ideals in the way it treats married same-sex couples.”

The Next Steps

“The suit we filed is pretty narrow and focused,” Rubenfeld explained when speaking to those gathered at the Tennessee Equality Project Volunteer Orientation, hours after the suit was filed. “It’s a first step. What we filed is different then what’s been filed in any other state. It’s a pure recognition case.”

But what about those who live in Tennessee and are not married in other states? “Our theory is that this is a logical small step from the Windsor case . . . if New York recognizes or Iowa recognizes it is part of a broad,  accepted American principal in our governmental system that people move around and what happens in one state gets recognized in another. So we think it’s going to be simple to do and once they do that it’s a really clear equal protection issue.”

When asked about a realistic timeline Rubenfeld responded: “If we can do it just on cross motions or summary judgment and not worry about a trial or anything, by the end of the year or early part of next year. I’ve been telling people we’ll have marriage equality in Tennessee in two years.”



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