Courts rule on constitutional amendments in Nebraska, Tennessee
LINCOLN, Neb. Courts handed victories to gay-marriage opponents in two states, reinstating Nebraska’s all-encompassing voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage and throwing out an attempt to keep a proposed ban off the ballot in Tennessee.
In the Nebraska case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit on July 14 overturned a judge’s ruling last year that the ban was too broad and deprived gays and lesbians of participation in the political process, among other things.
Seventy percent of voters had approved the ban as a constitutional amendment in 2000.
It went further than similar bans in many states in that it also barred same-sex couples from many legal protections afforded to opposite-sex married couples. For example, the partners of gays and lesbians who work for the state are not entitled to share their health insurance and other benefits.
New York-based Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Project sued, arguing it violated gay rights.
The court, however, ruled that amendment “and other laws limiting the state-recognized institution of marriage to heterosexual couples are rationally related to legitimate state interests and therefore do not violate the Constitution of the United States.”
In Tennessee, the state Supreme Court, also ruling July 14, dismissed a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union that contended the state failed to meet its own notification requirements for a ballot measure asking voters to ban gay marriage. The court ruled unanimously that the ACLU didn’t have standing to file the suit.
To have standing, plaintiffs must prove the timing of notification whether it was done properly or not somehow caused them injury, said James F. Blumstein, Vanderbilt University professor of constitutional law.
“Courts do not hear abstract questions brought by people who do not have a particularized stake in the issue,” he said.
Byron Babione, senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund, who represented lawmakers hoping to keep the amendment on the ballot, said he believed the court’s decision showed that no one would be able to prove they were injured by the timing of the notification.
Tennessee already has a law banning gay marriage, but lawmakers who supported the proposed amendment said they wanted a backup in the state Constitution in case the law was overturned.
Similar steps have been taken in 20 of the other 44 states that have specifically barred same-sex marriage through statute or constitutional amendment.
Only Massachusetts allows gay marriage, acquired through a ruling by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. Vermont and Connecticut allow same-sex civil unions that confer the same state-provided legal rights as heterosexual married couples. California and New Jersey have domestic partnership programs that confer most of the state-provided rights granted to married couples.
In Massachusetts, some lawmakers are continuing their attempts to ban gay marriage. The state’s top court ruled last week that legislative efforts to put a gay-marriage ban on the state’s 2008 ballot could move forward.
But at a constitutioanl convention held last Wednesday, lawmakers adjourned without taking up the gay marriage measure. The constitutional convention will re-convene in November, two days after the general election.
The top courts in two other states also dealt gay rights advocates setbacks last week: The New York court rejected a bid by same-sex couples to win marriage rights, and the Georgia court reinstated a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage there.
David Buckel, senior staff attorney at Lambda Legal, said Nebraska’s ban is “the most extreme of all the anti-gay family laws in the nation” and his group is considering asking the appeals court to rehear the case.
He said the court ignored the claims raised in the lawsuit.
“We did not sue about marriage, we sued because our clients were told it was a waste of time to try to get a domestic partnership bill passed in the Legislature,” he said. “Yet the court is reasoning as if what we asked for was the right to marry.”
Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning countered that no one’s freedom of expression or association was violated.
“Plaintiffs are free to petition state senators to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot,” Bruning said. “Plaintiffs are similarly free to begin an initiative process to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot, just as supporters did.”
AP writer Beth Rucker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed information used in this story.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, July 21, 2006.