A federal judge granted an emergency request Thursday to force Indiana to immediately recognize the marriage of a lesbian couple who wed in Massachusetts.
Judge Richard Young heard arguments in Evansville, Ind., about 150 miles southwest of Indianapolis, where lawyers for Amy Sandler and Niki Quasney argued for immediate recognition of the couple's Massachusetts marriage via a temporary restraining order. Quasney of Munster, Ind., in northwest Indiana was diagnosed in 2009 with ovarian cancer and is terminally ill.
The order, which will last for 28 days, joins a raft of legal decisions nationally pushing the issue closer to the Supreme Court.
The couple argued that the emergency request for recognition is about recognizing a family. The couple have said that they need their marriage to be recognized so they can access federal and state safety nets for surviving spouses and their children.
"This is, indeed, a case where a woman is dying and needs immediate relief for her family," said Paul Castillo, a lawyer from Lambda Legal who argued on behalf of the plaintiffs. "We are here today so that a woman can die in dignity."
By the time four weeks have passed, a preliminary injunction hearing will be scheduled though Young could choose to extend his order.
Arguing on behalf of the state, Indiana Solicitor General Tom Fisher said granting temporary restraining orders are not a matter of emotional equity but of legal rights.
Under current Indiana law, the state's marriage statute does not allow for hardship exceptions, like the one in Sandler and Quasney's case, he argued.
If the law changes after Quasney dies, thus validating the couple's marriage, Indiana could amend her death certificate, Fisher said. But he said that request doesn't constitute immediate harm and wouldn't justify the emergency request for recognition.
In his ruling, Young said the couple met the burden to prove the potential of immediate harm and said a reasonable likelihood exists that the couple will win their overall case.
At one point during the hourlong court proceedings this morning, Young asked Fisher if he acknowledged that same-sex couples are treated differently than opposite-sex couples. Fisher said that was true and also explained that a key intent of marriage in Indiana is to protect children who result from unplanned pregnancies.
Sandler and Quasney joined a federal lawsuit filed last month that challenges Indiana's gay marriage ban and the state's refusal to recognize same-sex unions legally performed in other states.
The suit is one of five such legal challenges filed last month to Indiana law that bans same-sex marriage and prohibits recognition of such marriages conducted legally in other states. They join more than 60 others filed nationwide as part of a movement that took off last year after a U.S. Supreme Court decision gave full federal recognition to legally married gay couples.
Carl Tobias, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Richmond Law School in Virginia, said Young had a few options. They ranged from denying the couple's request to granting a narrow exception for this one couple or ordering the state to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other states.
A ruling favorable for Sandler and Quasney allows the couple to access certain benefits available only to couples who already are legally married in Indiana. However, the temporary restraining order could be overturned or vacated during future court proceedings.
Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana, said opponents of same-sex marriage will continue their fight — even if they need to refocus their efforts elsewhere.
"We have been warning this is going to happen for years, that homosexual activists would continue to try to redefine marriage," Clark said. "We are not really disappointed. This will just make us redouble our efforts."
It's unclear when Young, appointed by President Bill Clinton, will take up full arguments in the case, but Castillo said his office believed it was necessary to first address Sandler and Quasney's case.
"This was an extraordinary case in that Niki is dealing with something that is particularly in the forefront of her mind," Castillo said. "So this is one of those exceptional sorts of cases that needed immediate attention, but the court is certain to make a determination as to all same-sex couples in the near future."
Castillo said it's also possible before that point for other couples like Sandler and Quasney to ask for the same type of emergency order.
All five federal lawsuits pending in Indiana have been consolidated under Young, giving more force to today's ruling even though it is limited to one couple, Tobias said.
"It is an indication of what the judge may be thinking more broadly, a sense of where he may go if given the opportunity," he said.
Tobias, who has been tracking same-sex legal cases across the U.S., said every federal district court except one that has ruled in similar challenges has issued a decision in favor of the plaintiffs and ordering their marriages to be recognized.
In December, a federal judge ordered neighboring Ohio to recognize the same-sex marriages on death certificates after two couples filed suit after one partner had died. Last week, he gave notice that he would expand his ruling Monday to require Ohio officials to recognize any gay marriages performed in other states.
Ohio officials are expected to appeal immediately.
As the Indiana challenge plays out in the federal district court, several rulings favorable to gay couples are facing scrutiny in federal appeals courts, including a case Thursday. A three-judge appellate panel in Denver heard arguments on whether they should uphold separate rulings from two federal judges that threw out same-sex marriage bans in Utah and Oklahoma. The judges appeared sharply divided as they questioned lawyers over whether to uphold a lower court's ruling that struck down Utah's ban on gay marriage.
Three other federal appellate panels will take up similar questions in the next few months, Tobias said, which could land the issue before the Supreme Court when it comes back in session in October.
While all but one federal district court ruling so far has come down in favor of granting recognition of gay marriages, Tobias said it is possible some of the appeals panels could overturn those rulings. If that is the case, he said, the resulting patchwork of conflicting decisions could force the Supreme Court to get involved.
"I don't think they are all going to agree," he said. "And it's harder for the (Supreme) court to tolerate that."
Contributing: The Associated Press