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Florida Refuses to Recognize Same-Sex Couples as Parents

Photograph by Getty Images

"Love has won!" the crowds chanted in June 2015 after the US Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage. But the triumph of love was not apparent when Alma Vazquez and Yadira Arenas welcomed their first child in Florida months after same-sex couples won the right to marry in the state. After giving birth to their daughter, Alma was told that she would be the only parent named on the newborn's birth certificate. Florida's Bureau of Vital Statistics refused to list Yadira as the child's parent and informed Alma that despite her legally recognized marriage, she would have to be listed as an "unmarried mother".

"I always dreamed of the moment when I would become a mother with my spouse," Yadira told Equality Florida, which filed a federal lawsuit in August 2015 on behalf of Alma and Yadira along with two other couples. "Instead of being congratulated, I was told that I had to lie and say I wasn't married because they wouldn't recognize my wife."

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Beyond the humiliation and stigma of this experience, there are serious consequences. A birth certificate is the first official document that connects a baby with a family and is intended to represent legal relationships rather than biology. Not having an accurate birth certificate creates logistical problems with everything from making medical decisions to signing up for daycare, as well as more dire repercussions if the named parent should become ill or die.

In cases of adoption or surrogacy, a judge issues a birth certificate listing both adoptive parents regardless of gender. And under Florida law, when a child is born to opposite-sex spouses, the birth certificate is required to list the mother's husband as the father of the child, unless paternity has been otherwise established by a court.

So, how to explain this blatant discrimination against lesbian moms?

"The state of Florida has not always been on the right side of history," says Hannah Willard, Policy and Outreach Coordinator for Equality Florida. "At the moment when a family should be celebrating, being told that you and your wife are not really married, not really a family, that's unacceptable."

Willard believes that despite months of organizations urging the Bureau of Vital Statistics to comply with the law, the continued resistance lies in a fundamental belief that same-sex couples are different.

There isn't a moment that goes by that I'm not thinking of the harm my children—my newborns—may face because we aren't being treated like other families

Cathy Sakimura, Family Law Director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights that is also representing the Florida couples, agrees that there "really isn't a good argument" for Florida's refusal to treat same-sex spouses equally.

It seems reasonable to conclude that the state is making a last ditch attempt to deny the full legal benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, since it can no longer deny them marriage itself. Several other states have also attempted to hold out on this issue. The Florida lawsuit follows similar legal battles in Texas, Ohio, Utah, Nebraska, and Arkansas, where court orders have been necessary to compel state officials to issue amended birth certificates.

Back in Florida, the other plaintiffs, Cathy Pareto and Karla Arguello and Debbie and Kari Chin, are still waiting for the dignity and respect the Supreme Court promised them.

"There isn't a moment that goes by that I'm not thinking of the harm my children—my newborns—may face because we aren't being treated like other families," Cathy told Equality Florida. "All I want to do is love, protect and provide the best opportunities for our children. The state's refusal to recognize that they have two parents and to list both of us on the birth certificates is demeaning and hurtful."

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"How can our son, who we planned for and loved even before he was born, have only one parent on his birth certificate?" Debbie added. "What would happen to him in an emergency, or if something happened to my wife, and I am not recognized as his mother?"

Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy placed special emphasis on raising children in his majority opinion.

"Without the recognition, stability and predictability marriage offers," Kennedy wrote, "their children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser."

How long will children in Florida have to live with that knowledge?

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