Louisiana marriage law requiring birth certificates blocked

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A federal judge blocked a Louisiana marriage law on Wednesday, saying its birth certificate requirement violates the rights of foreign-born U.S. citizens.

Viet Anh Vo, his U.S.-born fiancee, Heather Pham, and their attorneys embraced and cried in the courtroom after the judge announced his preliminary injunction.

The 2015 law was meant to deter foreigners from gaining visas and citizenship through sham marriages by denying licenses to people who don’t present certified copies of their birth certificates.

But U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle said it violates some foreign-born U.S. citizens their equal protection rights as well as the fundamental right to marry.

“It treats him differently from citizens born in the United States or its territories,” Lemelle said.

Vo, who goes by Victor, is a U.S. citizen who has lived in Louisiana since he was three months old. Now 32, he was born in an Indonesian refugee camp after his parents fled Vietnam, and said neither country will certify his birth.

Vo and Pham spent thousands of dollars on their wedding before their application for a marriage license was rejected last year. They tried at three separate parishes, but were denied each time by court clerks.

His lawsuit says they went ahead with the ceremony for a marriage that still lacks legal status.

“The couple, greatly disappointed, proceeded to hold a sacramental marriage in their Catholic Church. This marriage, however, is not legally recognized by Defendants or the State of Louisiana,” his court papers say.

Vo is represented by the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice and the National Immigration Law Center. Alvaro Huerta, a Los Angeles-based attorney for the law center, said the ruling enables the couple to immediately obtain a marriage license.

Their lawsuit says Vo automatically became a U.S. citizen as a child, when his parents became citizens. It says he has many official U.S. government documents reflecting his birth, legal residency and refugee status. He’s working on getting a certificate of citizenship and a U.S. passport, but the state law doesn’t recognize either document.

Lawyers for the state and parishes noted before the hearing that Vo’s complaint didn’t say whether he went to a judge for relief from the law. They asked the judge to apply any remedy to Vo alone.

In court, Neal Elliott, an attorney for the state health department, asserted again that Vo’s situation is unique. He also said the department has suggested legislation to address the constitutional issues, but acknowledged that there is no guarantee it would become law.

Lemelle gave no indication from the bench that his injunction applies only to Vo. Lawyers are waiting to see his written ruling.

“We don’t know if it’s going to extend to others, but we presume so,” said Huerta.


Associated Press reporter Michael Kunzelman in Baton Rouge contributed to this story.