A court case with major implications for the legal status, rights, and dignity of Louisiana’s same-sex couples has had an important recent development which may usher in a new era of acceptance and rights for all LGBT Louisianans. Amidst a series of wins, with several other states recently outlawing bans or legalizing same-sex marriage, Louisiana is poised to be the next battleground in the fight for marriage equality. This development may come as a surprise to some, after disappointments such as a 2013 failure by the Louisiana House of Representatives to repeal a sodomy statute used to criminalize gay men, or the striking down of LGBT housing protections in a non-discrimination bill killed in Louisiana House committee in May of 2014. However, the hard work of such organizations as Forum for Equality and Equality LA have secured victories in such areas as a city-wide nondiscrimination clause in Shreveport, as well as other community organizing. Forum for Equality, along with other advocates and legal experts, have brought a suit to trial which could turn the tide toward victory for LGBT residents of the state.
On Wednesday, June 25th, United States District Judge Martin Feldman consolidated several pending same-sex marriage cases in Louisiana, stating that he will rule on the entire issue in one decision, rather than issuing several smaller decisions in a “piecemeal” fashion. One such case that Feldman heard oral arguments for on June 25th is Robicheaux v. Caldwell, in which Forum for Equality and other advocates claimed that the legally-performed marriages of 6 same-sex couples married in other states should be recognized in Louisiana. Feldman has indicated that several legal issues concerning same-sex marriage must be settled before he will make any ruling. Nola.com identifies some of these undetermined legal questions: “whether Louisiana should legalize same-sex marriages, period, and whether Louisiana is violating gay and lesbian couples’ First Amendment rights by failing to recognize their unions” (Purpura, June 25th, 2014).
In 2004, Louisiana amended its constitution to make it unconstitutional to recognize or perform same-sex marriages, or any marriage not between one man and one woman. The amendment was passed by referendum, receiving 78% of the voter’s approval. Because of this amendment, all same-sex marriages are outlawed and unrecognized by the state of Louisiana. Robicheaux v. Caldwell sought to overturn this referendum, claiming that it violates the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the US Constitution.
For Feldman to rule in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, attorneys would have to conclusively prove that the 2004 amendment is unconstitutional because it violates the rights of same-sex couples in Louisiana. Feldman also stated during oral arguments that his decision partly relies on whether the denial of legal recognition and performance of same-sex marriages in Louisiana constitutes a grievance which “rises to the level of constitutional dignity” – essentially, if the harm done by denying the right to marry is bad enough to merit constitutional protections.
The Eastern District Court of Louisiana may rule on the issue of legalizing same-sex marriages at some point late this summer or early fall, though no official date has been set. Whether Judge Feldman decides in favor of same-sex marriage or against it, the losing side will most likely appeal the decision at the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, located in downtown New Orleans, which could either uphold or overturn the decision made by Feldman. Appeals can take anywhere from several months to years.
If Feldman rules in favor of same-sex couples, the ensuing protections could allow couples to be entitled to a number of important benefits: legal second-parent adoption, where both parents could have legal parental rights over their children, which would allow for school and medical decisions to be made on behalf of their children, as well as rights to visitation or child support in case of divorce or separation; enrollment in their partner’s healthcare and insurance plans; eligibility for partner benefits in such programs as public housing, Medicaid, and Social Security; family legal and financial decision-making power, such as inheritance, medical decisions, and rights in case of divorce; and more abstractly, the dignity and justice of being treated equally under the law, not as a second-class citizen denied the full rights an American is entitled to.