While a handful of local officials in Kentucky, Texas, and other southern states still stubbornly refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex partners, a judge in Tennessee is acting out in court. In September, Thomas Bumgardner and his wife Pamela filed for divorce after nearly 13 years of marriage. But Hamilton County Chancellor Jeffery Atherton had other ideas. He refused their divorce petition, citing the Supreme Court’s June ruling in favor of gay marriage in his reasoning.
He lamented that because the Supreme Court has declared that “a marriage is no longer a marriage,” he is unable to issue traditional divorces without further clarification from SCOTUS. His reasoning appears to go something like this: marriage is between one man and one woman; gay marriage is now legal; QED, nothing is real and I can do whatever I want.
More precisely, he wrote in his opinion, “The conclusion reached by this Court is that Tennesseans have been deemed by the U.S. Supreme Court to be incompetent to define and address such keystone/central institutions such as marriage, and, thereby, at minimum, contested divorces.”
It’s highly abnormal for a judge to reject a divorce case like this, especially in an action that specifically calls out the highest legal authority in the land. When pressed for comment, the judge simply referred reporters to his statement. According to the local media, the judge’s unusual dismissal “ruffled the legal community” in Tennessee, with some Chattanooga lawyers issuing scornful, even mocking responses.
“I don’t know for sure…but I suspect the U.S. Supreme Court did not intend to preempt divorce law,” said Chattanooga lawyer Mike Richardson.
And though many divorce attorneys have questioned whether the dismissal was lawful at all, the Bumgardner’s will have to file for divorce all over again. And because they’ve already been refused once, their lawyers say they will have to prepare entirely new arguments for their next divorce petition.