A federal judge this week ruled that Texas’ ban on marriage equality violates the United States Constitution. While the decision is stayed, LGBT rights activists are celebrating the ruling as a major victory.
U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia issued an opinion on Wednesday, February 22, that Texas state’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages and its refusal to recognize same-sex marriages from out-of-state violates the Constitutional rights of same-sex couples.
The plaintiffs in this case are Nicole Dimetman and Cleopatra De Leon, who were married in Massachusetts, and Mark Phariss and Vic Holmes who have been together for 17 years and wish to marry in Texas. The couples sued on the grounds that Texas’ refusal to recognize their rights to both marry and have their marriages recognized violates their right to Equal Protection.
State Attorney General Greg Abbot launched an all-out defense of the law, claiming that Texas’ population had spoken when it passed a constitutional amendment against marriage equality in 2005, and that the states have the power to define marriage as they see fit.
Ultimately Judge Garcia agreed with the plaintiffs in this case however, saying that:
Overall, the Court finds Defendants have not satisfied their burden of proving that [Texas's gay marriage ban] is constitutional. Defendants have failed to identify any rational, much less a compelling, reason that is served by denying same-sex couples the fundamental right to marry. Consequently,the Court finds that Plaintiffs have shown a likelihood of success on the merits by showing that Texas’ marriage laws violate their due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Applying the United States Constitution and the legal principles binding on this Court by the Supreme Court precedent, the Court finds that … these Texas laws deny Plaintiffs access to the institution of marriage and its numerous rights, privileges and responsibilities for the sole reason that Plaintiffs wish to be married to a person of the same sex. The Court finds this denial violates Plaintiffs’ equal protection and due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Accordingly, Plaintiffs have carried their burden of clearly showing that the extraordinary remedy of a preliminary injunction is appropriate in this case. Plaintiffs have shown a likelihood of success on the merits, i.e. that [Texas' gay marriage ban] is unconstitutional; have established that continued enforcement of [that law] would cause them irreparable harm… and finally, the Court concludes a preliminary injunction … will serve the public interest.
Important aspects of the ruling include that judge Garcia firmly answered Texas State administration’s contention that the Supreme Court has made it clear that states have control over what kinds of marriage rights they recognize. Garcia agrees that current law gives states a lot of power, however he also says that state policy must comply with the U.S. Constitution which, Garcia has concluded, Texas’ ban on marriage equality does not.
“Regulation of marriage has traditionally been the province of the states and remains so today,” Garcia wrote in the ruling. “However, any state law involving marriage or any other protected interest must comply with the United States Constitution.”
This is one of the first rulings to so starkly answer that line of argument and thus strikes a damaging blow to so-called “traditional marriage” advocates who had taken to relying on the state power argument as a central pillar of their gay marriage ban defense.
The ruling also tackles states that refuse to accept out-of-state same-sex marriages, saying that this causes same-sex couples irreparable harm because they are denied the certainty of how their unions will be viewed across a number of different financial and personal decisions, like filing with the IRS and state level benefits.
For its part, the State has already announced it will appeal this decision to the 5th Circuit appellate courts.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled over and over again that States have the authority to define and regulate marriage. The Texas Constitution defines marriage as between one man and one woman,” Attorney General Abbot said in a written statement. “If the Fifth Circuit honors those precedents, then today’s decision should be overturned and the Texas Constitution will be upheld.”
Texas Governor Rick Perry took a different approach, swiping at the Obama administration, presumably for encouraging states not to defend their same-sex marriage bans.
As noted above, the judge’s ruling is stayed pending a determination by the higher courts, meaning that Texas’ same-sex couples still can’t marry. However, given that successive federal courts have now struck down same-sex marriage bans including those originating in conservative states like Texas, Utah and Oklahoma, marriage equality advocates are still celebrating as this progress seems unlikely to be undone at the Supreme Court given the sheer amount of legal opinions that are stacking up in marriage equality’s favor.
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