Pavan v Smith: SCOTUS Reaffirms Rights of Same-Sex Couples
In Pavan v Smith, 582 U. S. ____ (2017), the U.S. Supreme Court reversed an Arkansas State Supreme Court decision that prevented same-sex married couples from having both spouses’ names listed on their children’s birth certificates. The Court’s per curium opinion cited its prior decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U. S. ___ (2015), which held that Constitution entitles same-sex couples to civil marriage “on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.”
Facts of Pavan v Smith
Two married same-sex couples who conceived children through anonymous sperm donation filled out paperwork listing both spouses as parents. However, the Arkansas Department of Health issued certificates bearing only the birth mother’s name.
The department’s decision rested on a provision of Arkansas law, which states “the mother is deemed to be the woman who gives birth to the child.” It further provides that “[i]f the mother was married at the time of either conception or birth, the name of [her] husband shall be entered on the certificate as the father of the child.” Another provision states: “Any child born to a married woman by means of artificial insemination shall be deemed the legitimate natural child of the woman and the woman’s husband if the husband consents in writing to the artificial insemination.”
The same-sex couples filed suit in Arkansas state court against the director of the Arkansas Department of Health seeking, among other things, a declaration that the State’s birth-certificate law violates the U.S. Constitution. The trial court agreed, holding that the relevant portions of §20–18–401 are inconsistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Obergefell because they “categorically prohibi[t] every same-sex married couple . . . from enjoying the same spousal benefits which are available to every opposite-sex married couple.” However, a divided Arkansas Supreme Court reversed that judgment. It held that “the statute centers on the relationship of the biological mother and the biological father to the child, not on the marital relationship of husband and wife,” and so it “does not run afoul of Obergefell.”
Majority Decision in Pavan v Smith
The Supreme Court reversed. “Because that differential treatment infringes Obergefell’s commitment to provide same-sex couples ‘the constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage,’ we reverse the state court’s judgment,” the majority held.
According to the court, the Arkansas Supreme Court’s decision “denied married same-sex couples access to the ‘constellation of benefits that the Stat[e] ha[s] linked to marriage.’” As the opinion further explains:
[W]hen a married woman in Arkansas conceives a child by means of artificial insemination, the State will—indeed, must—list the name of her male spouse on the child’s birth certificate. And yet state law, as interpreted by the court below, allows Arkansas officials in those very same circumstances to omit a married woman’s female spouse from her child’s birth certificate. As a result, same-sex parents in Arkansas lack the same right as opposite-sex parents to be listed on a child’s birth certificate, a document often used for important transactions like making medical decisions for a child or enrolling a child in school. (Internal citations omitted)
Dissent in Pavan v Smith
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote a dissenting opinion in which Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined. According to Justice Gorsuch, “it seems far from clear what here warrants the strong medicine of summary reversal.” The Court’s newest justice specifically emphasized the state’s argument that “rational reasons exist for a biology-based birth registration regime, reasons that in no way offend Obergefell—like ensuring government officials can identify public health trends and helping individuals determine their biological lineage, citizenship, or susceptibility to genetic disorders.
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