Judge: Louisiana law violates refugee's right to marry

NEW ORLEANS (AP) " A year ago, a state law blocked a U.S. citizen born in an Indonesian refugee camp from getting married in Louisiana. A court victory Wednesday means the man and his fiancee are free to make wedding plans.

Viet Anh Vo and his U.S.-born fiancee, Heather Pham, embraced and cried with their attorneys in a New Orleans courtroom after a federal judge blocked the law that prevented them from obtaining a marriage license.

The law, which took effect in January 2016, has prevented other immigrants in Louisiana from getting married for the same reason as Vo: He couldn't provide a birth certificate.

U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle, who granted Vo's request for a preliminary injunction, said the birth certificate requirement violates the equal protection rights of foreign-born U.S. citizens, as well as the fundamental right to marry.

"It treats him differently from citizens born in the United States or its territories," the judge said.

The lawmaker who pushed the law through the Legislature in 2015 said in an emailed news release that she is drafting legislation to amend it. She plans to provide for a process that would let foreign-born people who are legally in the U.S.

get a waiver from a judge if they can't produce a birth certificate.

Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, said that was always her intent with her original bill, which was meant to deter foreigners from gaining visas and citizenship through sham marriages.

"Unfortunately, sometimes bills don't come out exactly like you expect as they go through the process," Hodges said.

Vo, 32, said he planned to take Pham out to dinner Wednesday night to celebrate the ruling. He joked that he might even make another marriage proposal over dinner.

As soon as Thursday, the couple plans to go back to the clerk's office in their Lafayette hometown to get a marriage license. They may even officially tie the knot over the weekend.

Surprised and relieved, Vo said his victory shows "one person can actually make a change in the world."

"I just hope others can look at my situation and fight for their rights, too," he said.

Alvaro Huerta, a Los Angeles-based attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, said the ruling enables the couple to immediately obtain a marriage license.

The judge gave no indication from the bench that his injunction applies only to Vo. His lawyers from the law center and the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice are waiting to see his written ruling.

"We don't know if it's going to extend to others, but we presume so," Huerta said.

Debbie Hudnall, executive director of the Louisiana Clerks of Court Association, said her office needs to review a written ruling from the judge before it can provide any guidance to court clerks on compliance.

Vo, who goes by Victor, is a U.S. citizen who has lived in Louisiana since he was three months old. 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 and invited 350 guests to 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.

They went ahead with the ceremony and exchanged wedding bands, but their marriage has lacked 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's lawsuit says he automatically became a U.S. citizen as a child, when his parents became citizens, and he has official U.S. government documents reflecting his birth, refugee status and legal residency. It says 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.

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Kunzelman reported from Baton Rouge.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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