Stephanie Grace: Suit raises question of what kind of state should La. be?

Opponents of Louisiana’s constitutional ban on recognizing same-sex marriage probably could have picked a more opportune time to announce their new lawsuit against the state’s Department of Revenue and the state registrar.

For one thing, the news conference by the gay-rights group Forum for Equality came hours before a jury in federal court declared former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin guilty on 20 of 21 corruption counts, and on the same day that the Saints cut four beloved veterans of the Super Bowl run. The two big local stories pretty much gobbled up the news cycle.

The suit was also quickly overshadowed by a couple of big judicial decisions on its central subject. On the very same day, a federal judge ruled that Kentucky must recognize same-sex marriages performed in the 18 jurisdictions where such unions are allowed — one of several goals sought by four legally married couples who reside in Louisiana and who signed on to the suit. Two days later, a Virginia federal judge struck down that state’s gay marriage ban in its entirety, declaring that nothing short of “core civil rights” were at stake. The rulings follow similar decisions in places like Utah and Oklahoma.

The dearth of attention isn’t necessarily bad news for the plaintiffs’ cause. It’s more a sign that the drive to officially legitimize same-sex marriage continues to move remarkably quickly, not just in progressive strongholds but in the country’s heartland — and yes, even in the South. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, as well as the Obama administration’s efforts to update federal policies to reflect both reality and fairness, make decisions like these inevitable.

The Louisiana suit actually represents a more conservative approach than some other challenges. It doesn’t seek to force local clerks of court to start issuing same-sex marriage licenses; it merely asks that the state acknowledge legal same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, just as it recognizes opposite-sex marriages solemnized in other states.

By not doing so, Louisiana perpetuates a system that simply can’t stand. It now requires these couples to basically file false state tax forms, to put their signatures to the fact that they are single even if they’re not. Same-sex couples can now file joint federal returns, and Louisiana requires state returns to mirror their federal counterparts. But Department of Revenue Secretary Tim Barfield, one of two named defendants, has said that the state’s popularly-passed constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman prohibits joint filing. Barfield is an appointee of Gov. Bobby Jindal, who remains an avid opponent of gay marriage.

The other main object of the suit is Louisiana’s refusal to allow same-sex partners to be fully recognized as a child’s parents. The plaintiffs include two sets of parents of young children who both say they worry that, if something were to happen to the legally recognized parent, the surviving spouse could lose lose parental rights, and perhaps even custody. That’s a nightmare no parent should have to entertain.

The suit’s real target, though, is the constitutional amendment that relegates these families to second-class status in the first place. And its central question is far deeper than the legalistic language suggests. It goes straight to the question of what sort of state Louisiana should be.

Is it a state that asks its otherwise law-abiding citizens to lie on government forms, and causes parents to fret over their ability to fulfill their roles? Or a state that has its priorities in order, lives in the real world, treats its residents fairly and equitably, and actually abides by the principles its leaders say they hold dear, including freedom from government interference and, you know, family values?

Given the Supreme Court decision, the suit was inevitable. So, all signs indicate, is the ultimate outcome. As it should be.

Email Stephanie Grace at sgrace@theadvocate.com.