Thursday, February 13, 2014
Kentucky Federal Judge Rules State's Nonrecognition of Same-Sex Marriages Violates Equal Protection
United States District Judge John G. Heyburn's opinion in Bourke v. Beshear finds that Kentucky's statutory and state constitutional provisions defining marriage as limited to one man and one woman violate the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause when applied to same-sex spouses married in another state.
The judge's 23 page opinion is crafted for both a nonlegal and legal audience.
For popular consumption, Judge Heyburn's opinion has passages written in direct prose answering questions he himself has posed and unburdened with extensive citations. For example, he writes:
For many others, this decision could raise basic questions about our Constitution. For instance, are courts creating new rights? Are judges changing the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment or our Constitution? Why is all this happening so suddenly?
The answer is that the right to equal protection of the laws is not new. History has already shown us that, while the Constitution itself does not change, our understanding of the meaning of its protections and structure evolves. If this were not so, many practices that we now abhor would still exist.
He discusses religiosity in similar terms, beginning by noting that many Kentuckians believe "what their ministers and scriptures tell them: that a marriage is a sacrament instituted between God and a man and a woman for society’s benefit" and later opining that
The beauty of our Constitution is that it accommodates our individual faith’s definition of marriage while preventing the government from unlawfully treating us differently. This is hardly surprising since it was written by people who came to America to find both freedom of religion and freedom from it.
For its legal audience, Judge Heyburn's opinion contains a rigorous analysis of equal protection doctrine, of the Supreme Court's decision last June in United States v. Windsor, and of the courts applying Windsor.
Engaging with the Court's opinion in Windsor, authored by Justice Kennedy, Judge Heyburn expresses some frustration with the lack of clear equal protection doctrine, observing that the Court "never clearly explained the applicable standard of review." Nevertheless, Judge Heyburn used two "principles" of Windsor: that the actual purpose of the law must be considered in light of animus and that the laws must not demean one group by depriving them of the rights provided for others. Ultimately, Judge Heyburn applies rational basis review and finds that the government interests proferred by Kentucky - - - as well as those advanced in an amicus brief submitted by the Family Trust Foundation of Kentucky - - - are not legitimate interests.
Judge Heyburn also discusses the three federal district judges who have reached similar conclusions in "well-reasoned opinions," citing the opinions in Bishop v. United States from the Northern District of Oklahoma, Obergefell v. Wymyslo from the Southern District of Ohio, and Kitchen v. Herbert, from the District of Utah (now stayed).
To be clear, the effect of the opinion is not to mandate clerks in Kentucky begin offering marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But it is to require Kentucky to recognize same-sex marriages valid in another state as valid in Kentucky on the same terms as other marriages.
[image: 1921 map of Kentucky via]