Following a string of federal court victories in recent months, the same-sex marriage movement was dealt its first serious judicial blow today when U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman declined to strike down Louisiana’s ban on same-sex marriages, saying attorneys failed to prove that banning same-sex marriage violated equal-protection or due-process standards.
In 2004, the Louisiana legislature voted to ban both same-sex marriage and civil unions, which was ratified at the ballot box later that year by voters. Louisiana has had a ban against same-sex marriage in the state constitution ever since. The ruling means Louisiana can continue not to acknowledge residents' marriages that are legal in other states.
The suit was filed by the gay-rights organization Forum For Equality, and the other plaintiffs in the case were Louisiana residents in same-sex marriages that had been solemnized in other states: Jacqueline and Lauren Brettner of New Orleans (married in New York in 2012), Nick Van Sickels and Andrew Bond of New Orleans (married in Washington D.C. in 2012), Henry Lambert and Carey Bond of New Orleans (married in New York in 2011) and Havard Scott and Sergio March Prieto of Shreveport (married in Vermont in 2010). Dalton Courson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, announced they would appeal Feldman’s decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In June, Feldman had postponed a hearing on the case, saying he did not want to make a “piecemeal” ruling, but wanted to address the state’s constitutional ban itself. After the postponement, Jacqueline Brettner told Gambit
, “If I had to ask any of my heterosexual friends in an opposite sex marriage, which of their fundamental rights they would be willing to put to a vote, I think that would be a very difficult question to answer, if not impossible," adding, “I look forward to being on the right side of history.”
In a statement following today’s ruling, she said, “Today’s decision, while disappointing, was not unexpected. It shows the importance of the challenge and why it is necessary to seek equal protection for all LGBT citizens of Louisiana.”
Gene Mills, head of the Louisiana Family Forum, hailed Feldman's decision. “This ruling confirms that the people of Louisiana – not the federal courts – have the constitutional right to decide how marriage is defined in this state,” Mills said in a statement, thanking Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell and his special counsel, Kyle Duncan and Mike Johnson, for a "job well done." Tony Perkins, the former state representative who now heads the Washington D.C.-based Family Research Council, also issued a statement of support: "We commend Judge Feldman for refraining from judicial activism and recognizing that Louisiana voters are free to uphold natural marriage in their state's public policy. He rightly declared that the Courts have no authority to unilaterally change the definition of our most fundamental social institution."
Feldman's 32-page ruling concluded:
The Court finds that Louisiana's definition of marriage as between one man and one woman and the limitation on recognition of same-sex marriages permitted by law in other states found in Article XII, Section 15 of the Louisiana Constitution and article 3520(B) of the Louisiana Civil Code do not infringe the guarantees of the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the United States Constitution. The record reveals no material dispute: the defendants have shown that Louisiana's decision to neither permit nor recognize same-sex marriage, formed in the arena of the democratic process, is supported by a rational basis.21 The Court further finds that plaintiffs have failed to establish a genuine dispute regarding a First Amendment violation on this record. Accordingly, plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment is DENIED and defendants' motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.
It was a major setback for those in favor of same-sex marriage, who had been buoyed recently by more than a dozen court rulings in their favor. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of U.S. v. Windsor
, found that the then-current federal definition of “marriage” and “spouse” to apply only to opposite-sex couples violated due process, a ruling that had no effect on existing state laws but greatly broadened federal protections and rights for same-sex couples.
Louisiana politicians are split on same-sex marriage. Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sen. David Vitter, both Republicans, are staunch foes, while Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat up for reelection in a red-trending state, has supported civil unions but for years shied away from the larger question of marriage. She stepped closer to the issue earlier this year, when she was one of only three Democratic senators not to endorse same-sex marriage. In a March statement, Landrieu said, “The people of Louisiana have made clear that marriage in our state is restricted to one man and one woman. While my personal views have evolved, I will support the outcome of Louisiana's recent vote.”
More recently, Mayor Mitch Landrieu came out in favor of same-sex marriage, adding his name to a list of hundreds of American mayors on the “Freedom to Marry” website.
Forum For Equality plans a rally this afternoon at 5:30 p.m. in Jackson Square to protest the decision, along with other groups including the ACLU of Louisiana, the Human Rights Campaign, the New Orleans LGBT Community Center and Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.