Jonnie Terry joins hands with her partner of 28 years, Elizabeth Patten, during their marriage ceremony at the Washtenaw County Clerk's Office in Ann Arbor, Mich., March 22, 2014.
Photo by Fred R. Conrad/New York Times/Redux

Tennessee court breaks winning streak for marriage equality

One after another, lawsuits were setting them up and courts were knocking them down. Following last year’s Supreme Court ruling that rejected the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, state and federal courts nationwide have ruled against gay marriage bans from coast to coast. It was a remarkable, uninterrupted streak of success for civil-rights proponents, spanning more than two dozen courts.
Yesterday, however, we learned that the streak was 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.
As Lyle Denniston’s report added, “Although Judge Simmons’s decision was limited to cases involving a divorce when the marriage itself is not recognized, he ruled in sweeping terms,” relying in party on a 1972 ruling on Minnesota’s former ban on same-sex marriage.
The streak may be over, though it’s probably worth noting that the streak among federal courts remains intact.
Supporters of marriage equality took the Tennessee ruling in stride. “Inevitably the Supreme Court of the United States will have to be the ultimate decider on this issue, and so far they have nineteen federal court rulings to look to that say these discriminatory marriage bans are unconstitutional,” Human Rights Campaign press secretary Charles Joughin said.
There is, however, another court case on the horizon for both sides to watch with interest.
Adam Serwer reported this afternoon on a case at 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, where a defeat for marriage-equality advocates now appears likely.
Media coverage of oral arguments describe the two Republican appointed judges on the three judge panel as skeptical of the idea that same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional.
Judge Jeffrey Sutton, appointed by former president George W. Bush, plainly expressed his view that same-sex marriage rights should be decided at the ballot box.
“I’d have thought the best way to get respect and dignity is through the democratic process,” Sutton said, according to the New York Times.  The panel’s decision could affect bans in four states: Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky.
It seems inevitable that the U.S. Supreme Court will weigh in on the subject, and with some disagreements among lower courts, the justices seem likely to hear a case sooner rather than later.