Legal Recognition of Lesbian and Gay Relationships

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Does any state recognize marriages between same-sex couples?

At present, no state recognizes marriage between people of the same sex. A few states expressly prohibit same-sex marriages.  Every state, however, has marriage laws that define what requirements must be met before two people may obtain a marriage license. Such requirements usually specify that the applicants must be of a certain age, not closely related by blood, single, and free from certain types of venereal disease. Some state statutes specifically require that applicants be members of the opposite sex;9 others contain language referring to “husband and wife” or “man and woman.” 10 Even where the language of the state’s marriage laws is not sex-specific, however, courts and state officials have interpreted those laws as embodying a definition of marriage that requires a relationship between a man and a woman.

What are the consequences of the states’ refusal to recognize gay marriages?

When a state refuses to recognize a marriage, neither partner is entitled in the absence of an enforceable contract between the partners to the financial support of the other, and the couple may be deprived of other legal benefits that are conditioned upon marriage. These benefits are described more fully below. Perhaps as important, the refusal to recognize relationships between same-sex partners further entrenches societal treatment of all lesbians and gay men as second-class citizens.

What are the risks of obtaining a marriage license from the state without the state being aware that you intend to enter a same-sex marriage?

You may be accused of fraud, although there are no reported cases. In addition, the attempt may be used as a basis for discharge from the military.

What is the significance of a religious ceremony purporting to join together two people of the same sex?

Since no state has yet recognized as valid a marriage between members of the same sex, such ceremonies have no legal significance. In fact they are usually not described as “marriage ceremonies” but as ceremonies of “holy union.” Whatever their significance to the participants, holy unions do not entitle anyone to the legal benefits of marriage.

Is it unlawful to perform or to participate in such a ceremony?

Some states have laws forbidding any attempt to join in marriage persons who have not obtained a license or who otherwise fail to meet the state’s legal requirements. However, there have been no reported cases of prosecutions brought against persons performing or participating in same-sex holy unions. Where such ceremonies are purely religious in nature and do not pretend to convey any legal marital status on the participants, any attempt to bring such a prosecution would be subject to a challenge as a violation of the right to religious free exercise.

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