Texas isn’t the only state where this is playing out.
Lauren Beth Czekala-Chatham wants to force Mississippi, one of the America’s most conservative states, to recognize her same-sex marriage. She hopes to do so by getting a divorce.
She and Dana Ann Melancon traveled from Mississippi to San Francisco to get married in 2008. The wedding was all Czekala-Chatham hoped it would be, the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, dreams for a promising future. She wrote the vows herself.
The couple bought a house together in Walls, a town of about 1,100 in northern Mississippi’s DeSoto County in June 2009. But the marriage was tumultuous and, like so many others, it didn’t last.
Czekala-Chatham, a 51-year-old credit analyst and mother of two teenage sons from an earlier straight marriage, filed for divorce in chancery court in September. She wants to force Mississippi to recognize the same-sex marriage for the purpose of granting the divorce.
“It’s humiliating to know that you spend that money, that time to be in a committed relationship and for it to end. I mean, that hurts. But then to be in a state that doesn’t recognize you as a human being, or recognize you for who you are, for who you love, it’s hard,” Czekala-Chatham said during an interview at her current home in Hernando. “I’m not treated like the neighbors next door. I’m treated like a second-class citizen.”
She has plenty of company among gay and lesbian couples in other conservative states, although thus far only a few have pursued divorce cases in the courts.
“The idea you can’t go to your local courthouse and file for divorce is very disruptive,” said Peter Zupcofska, a Boston lawyer who has represented many gay and lesbian clients in marriage and divorce cases. “It’s an enormous waste of effort and time.”
The right to divorce isn’t as upbeat a topic as the right to marry, but gay-rights lawyers and activists say it’s equally important.
“The marriage system is a way we recognize and protect the commitments people make to their partner,” said James Esseks, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Part of that system is creating a predictable, regularized way of dealing with the reality that relationships sometimes end,” he said. “Those are the times people are the worst to each other, and that’s why we have divorce courts. There’s got to be an adult in the room.”
The Mississippi Attorney General’s office filed a motion to intervene on Nov. 15 that said the divorce petition should be dismissed.
Mississippi “has no obligation to give effect to California laws that are contrary to Mississippi’s expressly stated public policy,” the motion argues. “That legitimate policy choice precludes recognition of other States’ same sex marriages for any reason, including granting a divorce.”
Legal experts say getting Mississippi to recognize the marriage for any purpose is a longshot. Lawmakers amended state law in 1997 to say any same-sex marriage “is prohibited and null and void from the beginning. Any marriage between persons of the same gender that is valid in another jurisdiction does not constitute a legal or valid marriage in Mississippi.”
In 2004, 86 percent of Mississippi voters approved an amendment placing a ban on same-sex marriage in the state constitution.
In his arguments for a divorce, Czekala-Chatham’s lawyer, Wesley Hisaw, cites a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and ordered the U.S. government to recognize legal same-sex marriages. That has created a situation where same-sex couples “are married lawfully under the laws of the United States, but not under Mississippi law,” Hisaw contends.
He also argues that bigamous and incestuous marriages are considered “void” in Mississippi, just like same-sex marriages, but bigamy and incest are also grounds for divorce.
“There can be no legitimate state purpose in allowing bigamous or incestuous couples to divorce and not allowing the same remedy to same-sex couples,” he wrote.
A similar case has just commenced in Kentucky, where two women married in Massachusetts are seeking a divorce.
At least one same-sex couple has been able to get a divorce in a state that doesn’t officially recognize same-sex unions. In 2011, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that two women married in Canada could get a divorce in the state, reversing a ruling by a district judge.
So the situation elsewhere is much like it is here in Texas, where just like in Texas the state’s argument is that gay people need to check their rights at the border because their state exists in a special little bubble. Obviously, at some point the Supreme Court is going to have to sort this all out. That’s likely still a few years away, so in the meantime all these folks that are going through this will need to spend more and suffer longer to arrive at a less definitive outcome than anyone else could get. Why we have to do this the hard way I don’t know, but that’s the way we’re going to do it.