TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Gay marriage has been a hot topic in and out of courtrooms for the past several years.
Another issue is being fixed to help those who lost loved ones before the epic court ruling.
Florida widows and widowers whose spouses died before the U.S. Supreme Court declared state bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional can have the death certificates of their loved ones changed without having to go to court, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
The decision in favor of gay widows and widowers is the latest ruling from U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle against the state on the issue of same-sex marriages and was hailed as a major victory by Lambda Legal, which represented the plaintiffs in a class-action suit filed in 2015.
The plaintiffs sought to have the death certificates of their spouses show they had been married, but the state argued that Florida law prohibited officials from changing the documents without a court order.
“Not so,” Hinkle wrote in Thursday’s eight-page opinion.
Hinkle’s ruling came more than two years after he struck down Florida’s voter-approved ban on gay marriage in November 2014. Cementing Hinkle’s decision in a landmark case known as Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court months later ruled that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry.
While Florida officials complied with the Obergefell decision by including the names of same-sex spouses on death certificates for people who died after the June 2015 ruling, the state maintained that the Office of Vital Statistics required a court order to amend the documents of those who had died prior to the decision.
But Hinkle disagreed.
“As a matter of federal constitutional law, a state cannot properly refuse to correct a federal constitutional violation going forward, even if the violation arose before the dispute over the constitutional issue was settled,” he wrote. “If the law were otherwise, the schools might still be segregated.”
The state “must correct a constitutional error that affected a death certificate’s information on both marital status and a spouse’s identity,” he ordered.
Hinkle’s ruling requires state officials to amend death certificates without a court order “if the decedent was a party to a same-sex marriage that was recognized as lawful in the jurisdiction where it was entered” and the surviving spouse provides documentation, such as an affidavit, showing that the marriage wasn’t recognized or the same-sex partner wasn’t identified.
The plaintiffs include Hal Birchfield, who married James Merrick Smith in New York in 2012, and Paul Mocko, who married William Gregory Patterson in California in 2014. Smith died a year after he and Birchfield were married, and Patterson died the same year he wed Mocko. The two men filed the class action lawsuit on behalf of other similarly situated surviving spouses in Florida.
“The state of Florida discriminated against us and disrespected our relationship in life and even in James’ death, but this decision will ensure that I and all the other surviving same-sex spouses will finally have accurate death certificates that honor our relationships,” Birchfield, who spent four decades with Smith, said in a news release issued by Lambda Legal.
The News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam contributed to this report.
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