On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle blocked a Louisiana law that prevented many immigrants from marrying in the state. In a succinct and emphatic ruling, Lemelle found that the Louisiana law violates the 14th Amendment by discriminating on the basis of national origin and infringing upon the fundamental right to marry. His decision marks an important affirmation of Obergefell v. Hodges—at a moment when it is under judicial siege—and a critical vindication of the constitutional rights of immigrants.
The law in question, Act 436, added onerous documentation requirements to the marriage-licensing process in Louisiana. Under Act 436, marriage applicants have to provide a Social Security number and birth certificate before receiving a license. If they can’t produce a Social Security number, they must present a birth certificate and a passport. And if they don’t have a passport, they have to provide official documentation proving that they live in the United States legally in addition to a birth certificate. The birth certificate requirement can only be waived if an individual was born in the U.S. The measure’s sponsors alleged that their bill was necessary to combat immigration fraud, which is not known to be a particular problem in Louisiana—and which the federal government, not the states, is tasked with combating under the current legal regime.
Victor Anh Vo filed suit against the law, arguing that it violated his constitutional rights. (He was represented by an all-star coalition of attorneys from the National Immigration Law Center, the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, and the law firm Skadden, Arps.) Vo was born in an Indonesian refugee camp after his parents fled Vietnam. Neither Indonesia nor Vietnam recognized his birth, and neither country will issue a birth certificate to him. Vo has lived in Louisiana since he was 3 months old, and he was naturalized as a U.S. citizen at age 8. In 2016, he and his girlfriend, also a U.S. citizen, applied for a marriage license. But because Vo couldn’t produce a birth certificate, the state rejected their application, citing Act 436. This denial, he asserted, violated his equal protection and due process rights.
Lemelle agreed. The Louisiana law, he noted, indisputably discriminated on the basis of national origin: If Vo had been born in the U.S., he could’ve applied for the birth certificate waiver, but because he was born in Indonesia, he is ineligible for the waiver. Under the Equal Protection Clause, Lemelle noted, this kind of classification is subject to strict scrutiny, requiring that it be “narrowly tailored” to “further compelling governmental interests.” But Louisiana has not pointed to a compelling interest that justifies treating Vo, a foreign-born U.S. citizen, “differently from other U.S. citizens merely because of where he was born.”
Moreover, Lemelle wrote, Act 436 plainly violates Vo’s fundamental right to marry, secured under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses. Citing the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, Lemelle found that the law impermissibly infringed on Vo’s ability to obtain a marriage license. Act 436 “interfere[s] directly and substantially with the right to marry,” the judge explained, rendering it constitutionally suspect. To comply with the 14th Amendment, he wrote, this infringement upon the right to marry must pass strict scrutiny—which Act 436 simply cannot. Thus, the state cannot use the law to justify the denial of a marriage license.
“As a nation,” Lemelle concluded, “we should welcome all United States citizens, born in the United States or naturalized, to enjoy all of the rights and privileges that are bestowed upon them through their citizenship. These rights should not be abridged just because a United States citizen was naturalized instead of being born on our soil.”
Lemelle’s ruling is significant for two reasons: its stinging rebuke to state-sponsored xenophobia and its ringing endorsement of the constitutional right to marry. Despite the apparent beliefs of our current president, the Equal Protection Clause prohibits discrimination on the basis of nationality, national origin, and alienage. The government may not deprive individuals of fundamental rights or disadvantage them merely because they were born in a different country. Lemelle was right to remind Louisiana of this fact—and to protect immigrants’ freedom to marry. While some courts are attempting to abridge Obergefell, Lemelle recognized that the decision means what it says: States cannot strip individuals of their fundamental right to marry, or any associated rights and privileges, without a very good reason. Louisiana’s defense of Act 436 was xenophobia dressed in pretext. And under our Constitution, mere bigotry can’t justify government discrimination.