By Bob Allen
A Kentucky Baptist minister and gay-rights activist filed a lawsuit Feb. 14 claiming the state’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.
Maurice “Bojangles” Blanchard — who with his partner, Dominique James, was fined 1 cent for trespassing in November for refusing to leave a county clerk’s office after being told they could not apply for a marriage license — asked U.S. District Judge John Heyburn to build on his finding two days earlier that Kentucky must recognize same-sex unions performed legally in other states.
Blanchard leads the True Colors Ministry, founded in 2011 at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., as an outreach ministry to members of the LGBTQ community.
He and James and another couple denied marriage licenses by the county clerk in Louisville claim denying them rights available to others violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which says that no citizen can be denied equal protection under the law.
“The Commonwealth of Kentucky refused, and continued to refuse, to issue a marriage license to the Blanchard plaintiffs solely because they are a same-sex couple,” the lawsuit claims. By preventing same-sex couples from getting married, it says, state law “deprives them of numerous legal protections that are available to opposite-sex couples in Kentucky by virtue of their marriages.”
Judge Heyburn ruled Feb. 12 that the state’s ban on recognizing same-sex unions performed elsewhere violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law by treating gays and lesbians “differently in a way that demeans them.”
“Many Kentuckians believe in ‘traditional marriage,’” Heyburn said in the ruling. “Many believe what their ministers and scriptures tell them: that a marriage is a sacrament instituted between God and a man and a woman for society’s benefit. They may be confused — even angry — when a decision such as this one seems to call into question that view. These concerns are understandable and deserve an answer.”
Heyburn said religious beliefs and traditions “are vital to the fabric of society,” but once the government defines marriage and attaches benefits to that definition “it must do so constitutionally.”
“[The state] cannot impose a traditional or faith-based limitation upon a public right without a sufficient justification for it,” he said. “Assigning a religious or traditional rationale for a law does not make it constitutional when that law discriminates against a class of people without other reasons.”
“The beauty of our Constitution is that it accommodates our individual faith’s definition of marriage while preventing the government from unlawfully treating us differently,” he wrote. “This is hardly surprising since it was written by people who came to America to find both freedom of religion and freedom from it.”
The judge also addressed concerns including whether churches must now marry same-sex couples. “No court can require churches or other religious institutions to marry same-sex couples or any other couple, for that matter,” he said. “This is part of our constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. That decision will always be based on religious doctrine.”
According to their lawsuit, Blanchard and James have been together as a couple for 10 years. They had a religious marriage ceremony in 2006.
On Martin Luther King Day in 2013, they sought a marriage license, defying a 2004 amendment to the state constitution limiting legal marriages to those “between one man and one woman.” Blanchard described the protest beforehand as an act of “nonviolent resistance to bring about social change,” and tweeted “Praise God for the opportunity to witness to inclusive love” from the Louisville Metro Jail House following their arrest on a trespassing charge.
Blanchard and James rejected a plea bargain in which the charges would have been dismissed in return for both serving five hours of service at the charity of their choice, opting instead to face their charge of third-degree trespassing and a maximum fine of $250.
The jury found them guilty of trespassing, but set the fine at 1 cent. The presiding judge waived the 1 cent fine because of the brief time they spent in jail.
Blanchard called it “a great moral victory” that indicated the jurors understood what the couple was trying to say.