March 22, 2017
By The Associated Press
A federal court has blocked a Louisiana law that requires marriage license applicants to have a birth certificate, finding it denies equal protection rights to those born in foreign countries.
A federal judge blocked a Louisiana marriage law on Wednesday (March 22), saying its birth certificate requirement violates the rights of foreign-born U.S. citizens.
Viet Anh Vo and his U.S.-born fiancee, Heather Pham, embraced and cried with their attorneys in the courtroom after the judge announced his preliminary injunction.
The 2015 law was meant to deter foreigners from gaining visas and citizenship through sham marriages by denying licenses to people who don’t present certified copies of their birth certificates.
But U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle said it denies some foreign-born U.S. citizens their equal protection rights as well as the fundamental right to marry.
“It treats him differently from citizens born in the United States or its territories, Lemelle said.”
Rep. Valerie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, was the sponsor of the legislation. She did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Vo, 32, said he planned to take Pham out to dinner Wednesday night to celebrate ruling. He joked that he might even make another marriage proposal over dinner.
As soon as Thursday, the couple plans to go back to the clerk’s office in their Lafayette hometown to get a marriage license. They may even officially tie the knot over the weekend.
Surprised and relieved by his victory, Vo said it shows
“one person can actually make a change in the world.”
“I just hope others can look at my situation and fight for their rights, too,” he added.
Vo, who goes by Victor, is a U.S. citizen who has lived in Louisiana since he was three months old. He was born in an Indonesian refugee camp after his parents fled Vietnam, and said neither country will certify his birth.
Vo and Pham spent thousands of dollars and invited 350 guests to their wedding before their application for a marriage license was rejected last year. They tried at three separate parishes, but were denied each time by court clerks.
They went ahead with the ceremony and exchanged wedding bands, but their marriage has lacked legal status.
“The couple, greatly disappointed, proceeded to hold a sacramental marriage in their Catholic Church. This marriage, however, is not legally recognized by Defendants or the State of Louisiana,” his court papers say.
Vo is represented by the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice and the National Immigration Law Center. Alvaro Huerta, a Los Angeles-based attorney for the law center, said the ruling enables the couple to immediately obtain a marriage license.
Their lawsuit says Vo automatically became a U.S. citizen as a child, when his parents became citizens, and he has official U.S. government documents reflecting his birth, refugee status and legal residency. It says he’s working on getting a certificate of citizenship and a U.S. passport, but the state law doesn’t recognize either document.
Lawyers for the state and parishes noted before the hearing that Vo’s complaint didn’t say whether he went to a judge for relief from the law. They asked the judge to apply any remedy to Vo alone.
In court, Neal Elliott, an attorney for the state health department, asserted again that Vo’s situation is unique. He also said the department has suggested legislation to address the constitutional issues, but acknowledged that there is no guarantee it would become law.
Lemelle gave no indication from the bench that his injunction applies only to Vo. Lawyers are waiting to see his written ruling.
“We don’t know if it’s going to extend to others, but we presume so,” said Huerta.
– Kevin McGill and Michael Kunzleman, Associated Press