Pictured: Jackie and Lisa Phillips-Stackman, one of the couples in the Indiana case, with their daughter
The U.S. Supreme Court won’t hear a case from Indiana that could have undermined marriage equality, as it sought to reverse a lower court’s ruling that both same-sex parents have to be listed on a child’s birth certificate.
The court Monday included the case, Box v. Henderson, on a list of those it had turned down. It did so without comment, as is usually the practice. The justices’ vote was unanimous, despite the presence of three Trump appointees that gave the court a 6-3 conservative majority, the Law & Crime blog reports. So the ruling in favor of the parents will stand.
“It’s a major victory that is going to keep the same-sex families together, and the children born to these marriages will have two parents to love and protect them,” Karen Celestino-Horseman, an attorney representing the couples in the case, told The Indianapolis Star. She was joined by several other attorneys and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
“We are so happy for our clients, and other same-sex parents and their children in Indiana, who can finally breathe a sigh of relief that they will continue to be recognized families on their children’s birth certificates,” Cathy Sakimura, NCLR deputy director and family law director, said in a press release. “The Supreme Court rightly denied this case because it has already clearly decided that same-sex spouses and different-sex spouses must be treated equally.”
The court had ruled on the issue in 2017 in the case of Pavan v. Smith, in which same-sex couples in Arkansas had sued over the state’s practice of listing only the biological parent on birth certificates for children born to these couples. The state always listed the male spouse, however, on birth certificates for children born to opposite-sex couples, even if he had no biological relationship to the child. The high court ruled that treating same-sex couples differently was unconstitutional and out of step with its 2015 marriage equality ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges, as it called for same-sex couples to have all the “rights, benefits, and responsibilities” as others.
Then in 2018, the Supreme Court declined to hear a similar case from Arizona, letting stand a decision that recognized a woman as the legal parent of a child she and her wife conceived through assisted reproduction.
The Indiana case arose in 2015 when Ashlee and Ruby Henderson of Lafayette sued Kristina Box, the state’s health commissioner, and various officials in Tippecanoe County over the county’s refusal to list both of them as parents on the birth certificate of their daughter. Ruby Henderson had conceived the child through alternative insemination. County officials said the software the state used for birth certificates wouldn’t accommodate the listing of two women.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ruled that the county and state were wrong to do that, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit agreed, leading the state and county to seek a Supreme Court hearing. “A husband is presumed to be a child’s biological father, so that both spouses are listed as parents on the birth certiﬁcate and the child is deemed to be born in wedlock,” the Seventh Circuit noted in a decision issued in January of this year. “There’s no similar presumption with respect to an all-female married couple — or for that matter an all-male married couple.” The absence of that presumption constitutes illegal discrimination against same-sex couples, the appellate judges ruled.
Seven other couples had joined the Hendersons in the case when it went to the appeals court. Jackie and Lisa Phillips-Stackman, parents of a daughter, were among them; they were told they could not both be automatically listed on the child’s birth certificate and that they would have to instead “go through an expensive and lengthy step-parent adoption process,” the Star reports. Jackie, an Indianapolis police officer, lauded the Supreme Court’s action.
“It is such a relief, I can’t even begin to describe it,” she told the paper. “You spend so much time being very kind of angry at your state and angry at those that keep wanting to fight your equality as a parent, and you just get in this fight mode. So to know that that is finally over and that we can take a breath is so relieving.”
In urging the high court to take the case, Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, a Republican, had written, “A birth mother’s wife will never be the biological father of the child, meaning that, whenever a birth-mother’s wife gains presumptive ‘parentage’ status, a biological father’s rights and obligations to the child have necessarily been undermined without proper adjudication.” Solicitor General Tom Fisher commented Monday on behalf of the attorney general’s office, telling the Star, “We are disappointed the court declined to take up the case.”
Indiana Democrats and LGBTQ+ rights advocates were jubilant. “The U.S. Supreme Court has now made it clear to everyone that LGBTQ Hoosiers should have the same God-given privileges as everyone else, which includes having job security, getting married, and starting a family with the person they love,” said a statement issued by Drew Anderson, spokesman for the Indiana Democratic Party. “The Indiana GOP is still not long-removed from the days of Mike Pence and [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act], and we suggest Hoosier Republicans get with the times and stop creating useless political theater that does nothing but destroys our trust and divides the state.” Pence, as governor, had signed the RFRA into law even though it was widely interpreted to allow anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination. It was later amended.
“Today’s Supreme Court decision once again affirms that marriage equality under Obergefell v. Hodges means that married same-sex couples are entitled to be treated equally under the law,” added Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David. “By refusing to hear this case, the court effectively reaffirms its ruling in Pavan v. Smith that unequivocally ruled states must issue birth certificates on equal terms to same-sex parents. We refuse to allow our love to be treated any differently under law, and will fight to make sure skim-milk marriage never becomes the law of the land.” “Skim-milk marriage” refers to a comment by the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, saying the nation should not deny same-sex couples any of the rights that opposite-sex couples enjoy.