Lesbian couple is first to sue for nationwide recognition of marriage
July 22 2004 12:00 AM ET
In a potentially groundbreaking lawsuit, a lesbian couple has moved to force every state and the federal government to legally recognize their Massachusetts marriage. Holding hands, the Reverend Nancy Wilson and Paula Schoenwether stood outside a courthouse in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday to tell reporters that the time has come for gays and lesbians to receive full and equal rights, including the right to have their marriages recognized throughout the country. The lawsuit states that excluding lesbian and gay couples from the federally recognized institution of marriage violates the U.S. Constitution on multiple counts, including the right to equal protection under the law and the implicit right to privacy. "No one has anything to be afraid of by recognizing our marriage," Wilson said. "We know this is a moment in history, this is a time in which gay and lesbian people are not going to accept second-class citizenship in our country." The couple, who live in Bradenton, Fla., were married July 2 in Provincetown, Mass., when that city was still issuing marriage licenses to out-of-state same-sex couples despite an order from Gov. Mitt Romney to obey a 1913 state law that prohibits couples from getting married if their marriage would be considered illegal in their home state. Provincetown has since halted issuing such licenses.
Seven years ago the Florida legislature passed a law defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Florida, like many states, refuses to honor same-sex marriages performed outside its borders. Congress has passed similar laws, including the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which says no state shall be required to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. The suit cites the full faith and credit clause in the U.S. Constitution, which instructs states to honor other states' "public acts," often referred to as reciprocity. The clause was written to help the original colonies cope with their differing laws. "If Massachusetts recognizes same-gender marriages with all the legal rights, privileges, and immunities of different-sex marriages, Florida should be obliged to recognize the full scope of legal rights bestowed upon them under Massachusetts law," the suit states.
However, federal courts have been reluctant in some circumstances to enforce one state's laws when they conflict with those of another state. The suit names as defendants Hillsborough County, Fla., clerk of court Richard Ake and U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft. Ake's office declined to file the
couple's Massachusetts marriage license. Wilson and Schoenwether's attorney, Ellis Rubin, says he believes this is the first suit in the nation to attempt to force the federal government and other
states to recognize a marriage that occurred in a state where same-sex unions are legal. "This makes Florida the legal battleground for a very important issue," Rubin said. Wilson and Schoenwether have been together for 27 years. Wilson is a senior pastor at Metropolitan Community Church. Schoenwether
has a doctorate in clinical psychology, though she no longer practices.