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Mississippi state judge refuses to allow same-sex married couple to divorce

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A judge in Mississippi state court has refused to allow a lesbian couple to divorce. The state doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages or divorces, due to a state law and constitutional amendment that bans it.

According to reports, the judge seemed to believe he had no choice but to rule against granting the divorce:

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.

The report notes that the couple could get divorced in California, where they were married. But even then, Mississippi wouldn’t recognize their divorce. The ACLU points out the disruptive effects of non-recognition of marriage and divorce across state lines:

“The marriage system is a way we recognize and protect the commitments people make to their partner,” said James Esseks, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Part of that system is creating a predictable, regularized way of dealing with the reality that relationships sometimes end,” he said. “Those are the times people are the worst to each other, and that’s why we have divorce courts. There’s got to be an adult in the room.”

On a recent evening, in the one-story brick house she shares with her two children, a new girlfriend and several pets, Czekala-Chatham sat on the edge of a leather recliner, shaking her head.

“Why should I be treated differently, you know?” she said. “When the courthouse is a few blocks from here, I should be able to walk up there and get married. I should also be able to go up there and get divorced.”

The decision will be appealed.


  • 1. Shannon  |  December 4, 2013 at 6:41 am

    I read about this elsewhere yesterday and it included the bit about "they could get divorced in California… but Mississippi wouldn't recognize their divorce." And their lawyer suggested that their property division would be questionable in Mississippi. But this doesn't make sense, does it? If Mississippi doesn't recognize that they were ever married, why should they recognize a divorce? And any confusion about their property ownership is also a moot point because as far as the state is concerned, they're not now or ever married.

    Of course I'm sympathetic to their case, but I also wonder if it was wise for a couple in a state like Mississippi to go to California to get married. They should have known full well that their home state would not be cooperative with that.

  • 2. Jesse  |  December 4, 2013 at 8:17 am

    They are bringing to light an interesting federal disconnect. There are federal regulations about how to conduct divorces (especially when there are kids involved) that give no weight to which state/country the marriage was conducted. If a heterosexual couple got married in Canada, they can divorce in Mississippi.

    This is the conundrum with Section 2 of DOMA, because never before has the recognition of a marriage in one state been so fiercely scrutinized and defended from being recognized in another.

    Also, if one of the plaintiffs were in the military, their marriage would be valid from a federal perspective and likely divorceable, thus it puts the burden on Mississippi to defend the furthering of state's interest in banning marriage equality.

  • 3. Steve  |  December 4, 2013 at 10:45 am

    With DOMA gone, a lot of people in non-equality states will go elsewhere to get married. And they will still receive most federal benefits (Social Security is the big exception). It doesn't just apply to the military.

  • 4. Jesse  |  December 4, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    Ah, I stand corrected. I misunderstood the wording in the IRS site. I also forgot that there are many equality states now that will marry you without a residency pre-requisite.

  • 5. Steve  |  December 4, 2013 at 3:45 pm

    No state has a residency requirement to get married. At most a few days waiting period. Allegedly to discourage spontaneous marriages.

  • 6. bythesea  |  December 5, 2013 at 11:09 am

    If that's true, it must be a recent development.

  • 7. JustMe  |  December 5, 2013 at 8:59 am

    "There are federal regulations about how to conduct divorces"

    No there arent. There are NO federal regulations on marriage or divorce. There are federal regulations on child custody and child support. But those are viewed as merely displacing conflicting state laws. Now that the states have enacted the UCCJEA and UIFSA, those laws are pretty much ignored.

  • 8. Steve  |  December 4, 2013 at 10:43 am

    The Full Faith and Credit Clause idiotically doesn't entirely apply other laws. Which is why they can ignore marriages. It's impossible for a modern country to function like that, but it's been how the courts have seen it for decades.

    It does however apply to court judgments. States need to recognize court judgments from other states without exception. That's also why adoptions are portable and why couples should do a (second-parent) adoption even if they're married.

  • 9. sfbob  |  December 4, 2013 at 11:27 am

    So technically the couple COULD get divorced in California (or some other marriage equality state) and MS would HAVE to recognize the divorce even though it refuses to recognize the marriage. Let's set aside the question of why a couple should be compelled to do that–though in truth at one time Nevada was the go-to place for divorces.

    The courts have determined that FFC includes a "public policy exception" which applies to policies that the state takes extreme exception to. While in principle (at least when it comes to marriage) that exception could have applied to underage marriages legal in some states but not others, first cousin marriages (again legal in some states but not others) and so on, I suspect the reality it is a holdover from the period of time prior to Loving vs Virginia and was used by states with anti-miscegenation laws as an excuse not to recognize interracial marriages performed elsewhere. Virginia certainly used it to prosecute the Lovings since, had the state been forced to recognize their marriage it would have had no basis on which to arrest the Lovings.

    If I understand it correctly, Section 2 of DOMA in effect permits a state to invoke the public policy exception with respect to same-sex marriages. And just as Loving foreclosed that option on interracial marriages, a Supreme Court ruling overturning Section 2 of DOMA would likewise mean that a state would no longer be able to use the public policy exception as an excuse not to recognize a legally solemnized same-sex marriage.

  • 10. Steve  |  December 4, 2013 at 11:51 am

    The problem with going to another state is that all states have residency requirements to obtain a divorce. Often up to 6 months. So you can't just go on a vacation to get divorced.

  • 11. Mike in Baltimore  |  December 4, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    Actually, there are no residency requirements for divorce in Alaska, Iowa, Louisiana, South Dakota and Washington state.

    And in New York state:
    "New York requires one year of residency if the parties were married in the state or resided in the state as husband and wife. New York requires at least one party establishes two years of residency if the parties were not married in the state.

    And/or one party or both would need to establish residency in another state. Such as Connecticut, where the residency requirement is 12 months, or Maryland and Massachusetts, where the residency requirement is 1 year.

    Even though there are five states with no residency requirements, all require some amount of travel – the closest to Mississippi would be Louisiana (probably would run into the same type of court decision.) Otherwise, the parties would have to travel further. Next closest to Mississippi is Iowa.

    (Residency requirements from the ABA's 'Family Law Quarterly', Volume 46, No. 4, Winter 2013,… )

  • 12. JustMe  |  December 5, 2013 at 9:04 am

    Yes there are. EVERY state has a residency requirement for a divorce.

    Iowa's residency requirement is 1 year. Iowa Code (598.5(1)(k)):

    1. The petition for dissolution of marriage shall:

    k.Except where the respondent is a resident of this state
    and is served by personal service, state that the petitioner has been
    for the last year a resident of the state, specifying the county in
    which the petitioner has resided and the length of such residence in
    the state after deducting all absences from the state, and that the
    maintenance of the residence has been in good faith and not for the
    purpose of obtaining a dissolution of marriage only.

  • 13. marvelmvs  |  December 6, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    But they don't have to be residents of California in order to get divorced in this specific situation. The California Family Code waives the residency requirement in these instances specifically where the parties live in a state that will not allow them to get divorced.
    See California Family Code 2320(b)

    The same-sex marriage/domestic partnership dissolution form specifically contemplates these issues allowing the parties to check the box saying that they are not residents of California.

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