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Miss. Judge Refuses to Grant Same-Sex Couple’s Divorce

by Holbrook Mohr
Tuesday Dec 3, 2013
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Dawn Jefferies, right, Lauren Beth Czekala-Chatham, left
Dawn Jefferies, right, Lauren Beth Czekala-Chatham, left  (Source:AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

A Mississippi judge on Monday refused to grant a divorce to a lesbian couple who got married in California, saying the marriage wasn’t recognized under state law, according to the woman who filed and her lawyer.

Lauren Beth Czekala-Chatham, who filed for the divorce in September in north Mississippi’s DeSoto County, said in a telephone interview Monday that the judge seemed sympathetic and that she plans to appeal the ruling.

Czekala-Chatham, a 51-year-old credit analyst and mother of two teenage sons from an earlier straight marriage, said she was "a little bit disappointed."

"I would have liked to have had the divorce, but either way he ruled, it was going to be appealed," she said.

Democrat Attorney General Jim Hood’s office had argued that Mississippi can’t grant a divorce in a marriage it doesn’t recognize. Hood’s office said in a motion to intervene on Nov. 15 that Mississippi "has no obligation to give effect to California laws that are contrary to Mississippi’s expressly stated public policy."

Czekala-Chatham’s lawyer, Wesley Hisaw, said Desoto County Chancery Judge Mitchell Lundy said he felt that "his hands were tied" by Mississippi law.

Mississippi 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."


Lauren Beth Czekala-Chatham, right, Dawn Jefferies, left  (Source:AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

In 2004, 86 percent of Mississippi voters approved an amendment placing a ban on same-sex marriage in the state constitution.

Czekala-Chatham and Dana Ann Melancon traveled to San Francisco to get married in 2008. They bought a house together in Mississippi the following year, but their relationship soured.

They could get a divorce in California, but Czekala-Chatham says she shouldn’t be treated differently than straight couples. And Hisaw argued that Mississippi wouldn’t recognize the divorce from California, which could leave their marital property in limbo.

In his written arguments for a divorce, Hisaw cited 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.

Right-to-divorce cases have cropped up in some other states with constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. On Nov. 5, the Texas Supreme Court heard arguments about whether the state can grant divorces to gay couples married elsewhere.

The plaintiffs are couples from Austin and Dallas who married in Massachusetts and later filed for divorce in Texas. The Austin couple was granted a divorce, but Attorney General Greg Abbott intervened in the Dallas case and won an appeals court decision blocking a divorce.

In the oral arguments, Assistant Attorney General James Blacklock argued there’s no way for Texas to grant a divorce because of the constitutional ban.

"There’s no marriage here," he said. "So there can be no divorce."

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.


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