Tennessee denying name changes to same-sex couples

Gwen Castro, left, and Erin Schablik were married May 3, 2013, in Central Park, N.Y. Castro wants to change her last name to Schablik on her driver's license, to match her marriage certificate. Photo: The Tennessean
Gwen Castro, left, and Erin Schablik were married May 3, 2013, in Central Park, N.Y. Castro wants to change her last name to Schablik on her driver’s license, to match her marriage certificate.
Photo: The Tennessean

Tennessee is turning away same-sex couples married in other states who seek to have their names changed on driver’s licenses and other state documents.

State legislators banned same-sex marriage in a statute and voters did the same in the state constitution.

The result is, as more Tennessee couples go to one of the 13 states and Washington, D.C., where same-sex marriages are recognized, they are having trouble getting it recognized back home. Complicating matters is the federal government now recognizes same-sex couples and allows Social Security cards to be issued in married names.

The Tennessean reports that attorneys are recruiting potential couples for a lawsuit challenging the state’s ban.

University of Memphis law professor Steven Mulroy, who specializes in civil liberties, said there are two potential legal arguments against the ban–that it violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause because state laws can’t discriminate–and that it violates the constitution’s full faith and credit clause, which says states must respect the judgment of other states.

“I went into Cookeville for my new Social Security card using my marriage certificate, and they said I should have it in four days to two weeks,” said Byrdstown resident Neil Stovall, who wants to become Neil Irby after his Aug. 17 wedding in Niagara Falls, N.Y., to Harry Irby. “But what about the name on my driver’s license? My concealed handgun carry permit? To me, they’re denying me my constitutional right to happiness. The state government seems to have a problem with it when no one else does.”

Rockford resident Gwen Castro, who is Gwen Schablik on her New York marriage certificate, went to three driver’s license centers in Knox and Blount counties but had no luck in finding a sympathetic worker the way a friend had.

“At that point, the rejection had gotten to me,” she said. “I went outside. I was just crying. My wife never came in with me, she was waiting in the car because we didn’t want to draw any attention.”

It’s impossible to count how many gay couples marry elsewhere and make their homes in Tennessee, but a University of California, Los Angeles study of 2010 census data puts the figure near 2,000. The number could be significantly higher with the DOMA ruling and more states granting same-sex marriages.

Michael Hogan, the director of driver’s license issuance, said there’s a misconception that Social Security cards are a primary form of identification. They’re not, he said.

Names on passports can be changed with same-sex marriage certificates, and passports are considered a primary form of ID at Tennessee license centers, but they’re irrelevant to name changes, Hogan said.

The issue with driver’s licenses is just one more reminder that same-sex couples’ marriages are unequal in Tennessee, said Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project.

“The system we have is untenable because couples are changing all kinds of other federal documents and being given inconsistent guidance in Tennessee,” Sanders said. “The short-term fix is for couples to go to court to get a name change. And the longer-term fix is for us to go to court and challenge the marriage amendment, which is what we’re doing.”

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