U.S. Supreme Court has reversed a decision against lesbian parents' birth certificates. Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key

Supreme Court Reverses Ark. Justices in Lesbian Birth Certificate Case

BY CHRIS JOHNSON, WASHINGTON BLADE

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed Monday an Arkansas high court ruling allowing the state to refuse to place a lesbian parent's name on the birth certificate of their child if the parent isn't the birth mother. In the case of Pavan v. Smith, the court in a per curiam decision issued a summary reversal of the Arkansas Supreme Court decision on the basis it contravened the 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges extending marriage equality nationwide, which was handed down exactly two years to the day of the reversal. "When a married woman gives birth in Arkansas, state law generally requires the name of the mother's male spouse to appear on the child's birth certificate -- regardless of his biological relationship to the child," the decision says.

"According to the court below, however, Arkansas need not extend that rule to similarly situated same-sex couples: The State need not, in other words, issue birth certificates including the female spouses of women who give birth in the State. Because that differential treatment infringes Obergefell's commitment to provide same-sex couples 'the constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage,' we reverse the state court's judgment."

Observing that plaintiffs in the consolidated Obergefell litigation -- namely those in the case of Henry v. Hines -- explicitly challenged Ohio's refusal to recognize same-sex marriages for the purposes of the birth certificates, the justices conclude the marriage equality decision "applies with equal force" to the Arkansas law in question, In December, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled the state has no obligation to place the names of both lesbian parents on a child's birth certificate as a result of litigation filed by three lesbian plaintiff couples to strike down a state law requiring the state to label on a birth certificate the "paternity of the person" when that person is born. Not all justices were in agreement with the reversal of the Supreme Court decision.

U.S. Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch -- joined by U.S. Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito -- rejected the court's conclusion that a summary reversal is appropriate in this case. "Before the state supreme court, the State argued that rational reasons exist for a biology based birth registration regime, reasons that in no way offend Obergefell--like ensuring government officials can identify public health trends and helping individuals determine their biological lineage, citizenship, or susceptibility to genetic disorders." Gorsuch writes. "In an opinion that did not in any way seek to defy but rather earnestly engage Obergefell, the state supreme court agreed.

And it is very hard to see what is wrong with this conclusion for, just as the state court recognized, nothing in Obergefell indicates that a birth registration regime based on biology, one no doubt with many analogues across the country and throughout history, offends the Constitution." A trio of legal firms -- the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Arkansas attorney Cheryl Maples, who represented the lesbian couples in the case before the Supreme Court, and the D.C.-based law firm Ropes & Gray -- filed a petition for certiorari before the Supreme Court in February calling on justices to reverse the decision. Doug Hallward-Driemeier, partner at Ropes & Gray who served as co-counsel in the case, praised the Supreme Court in a statement for reversing the Arkansas high court decision. "Today's Supreme Court decision protects same-sex married couples and their children from discrimination and strengthens the rule of law," Hallward-Driemeier said. "Marriage equality is the law of the land, and this decision sends a clear message that states must follow the law and treat all married couples equally."

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National Gay Media Association.
  • Latest News

Enter To Win

Enter contests to win great prizes like CDs, DVDs, concert tickets and more

Special Section: World AIDS Day
Rising Above

Activist Cleve Jones has lived an extraordinary life, filled with world-changing friends and figureheads from Harvey Milk to Dustin Lance Black.

View More World AIDS Day
This Week's Issue

Download or view this week's print issue today!