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Federal court rules Missouri law unconstitutionally restricts prisoner right to marry

The US District Court for the Western District of Missouri [official website] on Thursday ruled [opinion, PDF] that a law [text, RSMo 451.040.2] requiring a couple applying for a marriage license to sign it in the presence of the recorder of deeds is unconstitutional. The law was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] on behalf of five fiancées whose marriage ceremonies at the Jefferson City Correctional Center were canceled last year because their incarcerated fiances were unable to sign a marriage license in the presence of the recorder of deeds. Judge Fernando Gaitan, Jr. [official profile], stated in his opinion that the law as applied to the plaintiffs in this case violates the Due Process Clause [Cornell LII backgrounder] of the 14th Amendment [text] to the US Constitution because the plaintiffs "have a constitutional right to marry their incarcerated fiancés." The judge ruled that there was "no state interest sufficiently important" to uphold the law in light of its infringement upon the plaintiffs' constitutional rights. Although the court did not strike down the law as applied to all individuals, it set new requirements for individuals who are incarcerated to obtain a marriage license, including a signed statement by the incarcerated individuals explaining that they are unable to appear in front of the recorder of deeds.

The right to marry has been a controversial constitutional issue throughout the US in recent years, specifically in the context of same-sex marriage [JURIST backgrounder]. Last week, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in New Mexico [JURIST report] seeking a declaration that it is unlawful for the state to deny same-sex couples the right to marry because of their sexual orientation. Earlier this month, President Barack Obama [JURIST news archives] urged the US Supreme Court [official website] to strike down California's law banning same-sex marriage in the case Hollingsworth v. Perry [docket] which it will hear this week. Also last month, briefs were filed on both sides [JURIST report] of a challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act [text], which the Supreme Court will also hear this week.

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