Judge blocks law requiring birth certificates to marry

BATON ROUGE, La. — A federal judge has permanently blocked a Louisiana law that prevented foreign-born U.S. citizens from getting married if they couldn't produce a birth certificate.

U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle's ruling resolves a lawsuit Lafayette resident Viet Anh Vo filed last year after he and his U.S.-born fiancee had their application for a marriage license rejected two weeks before their wedding.

The permanent injunction benefits anyone whom the 2016 law prevented from obtaining a marriage license.

The judge initially blocked enforcement of the statute in March, pending Tuesday's final ruling. Lawmakers responded in June by allowing marriage license applicants who can't produce a birth certificate to get a judicial waiver. But Lemelle said that new law, which took effect on Aug. 1, preserved other unconstitutional provisions, such as passport and visa requirements, that apply only to foreign-born citizens.

The state failed to demonstrate a "compelling governmental interest" in creating a two-tiered system based on whether a citizen was born inside or outside the U.S., he said.

"The State of Louisiana is not harmed by having to issue a marriage license to, in this case, a United States citizen who merely lacks a birth certificate due to circumstances beyond his control," Lemelle wrote, adding that the right to marriage is "fundamental."

The Louisiana Department of Health "supports and encourages" marriage and always intended to "treat everyone equally," agency chief of staff Andrew Tuozzolo said Wednesday in response to the ruling. "It has been our intention from the very beginning to cure this issue," he added.

State Rep. Valarie Hodges, a Republican who sponsored the 2016 law, has said it was designed deter foreigners from gaining visas and citizenship through sham marriages.

Vo, 32, was born in an Indonesian refugee camp after his parents fled Vietnam as refugees, and neither country's government recognized his birth. Vo has lived in Louisiana since he was 3 months old and became a U.S. citizen when he was 8 years old.

Vo and his fiancee, Heather Pham, spent thousands of dollars and invited 350 guests to their wedding in February 2016 before their application for a marriage license was rejected last year by court clerks in three parishes. They went ahead with the ceremony, but couldn't make their marriage official.

Alvaro Huerta, one of Vo's lawyers, said the couple hasn't legally married yet because they wanted to wait for a final ruling from the judge. Huerta said his client is thrilled and proud to have helped other people in the same predicament.

"He has come a long way, because I think he was reluctant at first to challenge the system," added Huerta, a Los Angeles-based attorney for the National Immigration Law Center.

Vo's court challenge allowed Tiana Nobile, 29, to get married in April. Nobile was born in South Korea, adopted as an infant and became a U.S. citizen as a toddler. She had her citizenship paperwork, passport and driver's license, but didn't have a birth certificate.

Nobile and her husband, Austin Feldbaum, began following Vo's case and obtained their marriage license in New Orleans about a week after Lemelle's ruling in March. Cutting through the red tape to get a waiver from a judge and secure the license consumed nearly an entire day.

"I think the whole process is incredibly alienating," Nobile said. "My partner and I decided to get married and the state's response was, 'Well, where are you really from?'"

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