A judge in eastern Tennessee has dropped an anchor amid the deluge of state and federal court rulings favoring same-sex marriage. In a decision last week, Roane County Circuit Judge Russell E. Simmons Jr. said Tennessee, which defines marriage as only between a man and woman, need not recognize gay marriages performed in another state.
“The court finds that Tennessee’s laws concerning same-sex marriage do not violate the equal protection clause or the U.S. Constitution,” Simmons wrote in his opinion, which U.S. Supreme Court reporter Lyle Denniston posted online Monday.
The case involved two men, Frederick Michael Borman and Larry Kevin Pyles-Borman, who married in Iowa in 2010. They later moved to Tennessee, separated, and filed for divorce. But since Tennessee bans same-sex marriage in its constitution and does not recognize homosexual marriages made in other states, Tennessee officials would not grant divorce proceedings.
The case before Simmons dealt primarily with the question of whether Tennessee must recognize out-of-state marriages, but the judge wrote broadly on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage laws. Since the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2013 decision United States v. Windsor struck down the federal law protecting traditional marriage, courts in more than a dozen states have ruled against similar traditional marriage statutes.
But last week, Simmons argued the Supreme Court in Windsor didn’t explicitly say states could not define marriage as between one man and one woman. Nor did it say it was unconstitutional for states to ignore same-sex marriages formed elsewhere.
“The Windsor case is concerned with the definition of marriage, only as it applies to federal laws, and does not give an opinion concerning whether one state must accept as valid a same-sex marriage allowed in another state,” the judge wrote. “[N]either the federal government nor another state should be allowed to dictate to Tennessee what has traditionally been a state’s responsibility.”
Citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent, Simmons said the “Full Faith and Credit” clause of the Constitution that requires states to recognize one another’s laws need not apply when the laws of two states are diametrically opposed.
The judge also rebuffed the common argument that same-sex marriage bans discriminate against a “class” of people: “There are other marriages between opposite sex couples that are prohibited in Tennessee, such as prohibited degrees of relationship (a parent marrying their child, a brother marrying a sister, etc.) … Also, a second marriage before the dissolution of a first marriage is prohibited.”
While agreeing marriage is a “fundamental right,” Simmons concluded, “The battle is not between whether or not marriage is a fundamental right but what unions are included in the definition of marriage. The legislative branch of Tennessee and the voters of Tennessee have said that the definition of marriage should be as it always has been. That man’s best definition of marriage will always be the union of one man and one woman.”
The surprising ruling comes the same week that voters in Chattanooga overturned a new city ordinance giving health benefits to the domestic partners of city employees. The City Council had passed the ordinance in November, but an opposition drive led by a local tea party leader quickly gathered 7,755 signatures petitioning to put the measure to a popular vote.
Last Thursday, Chattanooga residents voted down the ordinance, 13,685 to 8,184.
The 6th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati last week heard arguments in several same-sex marriage cases, including a challenge attempting to force Tennessee to recognize gay marriages formed elsewhere.