Same-sex N.O. couple challenging state's gay marriage laws with federal suit

Published: Jul. 30, 2013 at 1:45 AM CDT|Updated: Aug. 6, 2013 at 1:45 AM CDT
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Derek Penton and Jonathan Robicheaux
Derek Penton and Jonathan Robicheaux

For Derek Penton and Jonathan Robicheaux, it was a chance to take their seven-year relationship to the next level.

The same-sex couple, who live in New Orleans, traveled to Iowa in September to tie the knot.

"It's just progressed like any other relationship would and when that time came, we decided to get married. And I think that's how it happens in everybody's lives, right? So, why should ours be so different," Penton said.

When the two returned home to New Orleans, their marriage wasn't recognized under Louisiana law. Now, they're trying to change that.

"We just want what's fair and just. [Jonathan] can't be on my insurance because it's not recognized. Basically the state looks at us as roommates and that's not what we are," Penton said. "If I were to pass away or he were to pass away, we would have to file succession in this state. We couldn't file in Iowa. We would have to do it in this state and that leaves no rights, because that legal document from Iowa is not recognized here. So, wills don't take care of it because they're disputed every day. They're [struck] down every day."

The couple recently filed suit in federal court, challenging sections of the state's constitution and civil code that declare same-sex marriages are not valid in Louisiana.

John Hill with the Forum for Equality believes the case will ultimately be the tip of the iceberg.

"I would expect there will be a dozen or so lawsuits by the end of the year from individuals," Hill said.

But while Hill said attorneys working with his group continue meeting to develop their own collective strategy, there has been much debate over how best to move forward.

"Some say we shouldn't even bring a case because it would go into federal court into the Fifth Circuit, and the Fifth Circuit is the most conservative in the country," Hill said. "And when you go into the Supreme Court, you want to go from a position from winning in the lower level. So, there is that school of thought. The other school of thought is, if you read the Supreme Court's [Defense of Marriage Act] decision, the court is inviting the lawsuits."

Hill said he believes, eventually, marriages will be treated equally across the U.S.

Penton and Robicheaux know they're in for a long, difficult battle, but they're ready for it.

"Times are changing and opinions are changing. And I don't know how much they're changing around here, but if we don't start this fight now, who's going to?" Penton said. "It's kind of heartbreaking because, being from around this area and loving this area all my life, I feel like they're kind of forcing me... if you want to be recognized, you have to go somewhere else. You have to leave your home."

Robicheaux is listed as the plaintiff in the case. The suit names state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell as the defendant.

A spokesman for Caldwell said the office would not comment because the litigation is pending.