The case concerns the question of whether same-sex spouses should be listed on a newborn’s birth certificate. In Arkansas, a newborn baby’s mother and, if she is married to a man, her husband are named on its birth certificate. The genetic relationship between the baby and the “father” is not important – DNA testing is not routine so the state has no way of knowing if the mother’s husband is the baby’s father. Also, the state allows the father to be named on the birth certificate in cases of artificial insemination when it is known that the mother’s husband is not the baby’s father.
Not so for mothers who are married to women. The supreme court of Arkansas ruled that same-sex partners of mothers cannot be named on a birth certificate because “In the situation involving the female spouse of a biological mother, the female spouse does not have the same biological nexus to the child that the biological mother or the biological father has.” The court said that the purpose of a birth certificate is to name biological relationships for the purpose of determining one’s genetic background later in life.
That reasoning is a stretch, of course, since the state does not try to ascertain whether the mother’s husband is the baby’s biological father.
The Supreme Court overturned that ruling today, arguing that Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 did not just allow same-sex couple to marry, but also required that same-sex married couples get the same rights as opposite-sex married couples. Since Arkansas requires that the husbands of mothers of babies conceived through artificial insemination by an anonymous sperm donor be named on the birth certificate, a birth certificate in that is not just about biological relationships and the state cannot treat same-sex marriages differently from opposite-sex marriages.
This is helpful to people in Arkansas because a birth certificate is often required to show parenthood in school enrollment and medical treatment, which is another reason that birth certificates are not just documents to name biological relationships.
It’s helpful in other cases where states might try to say that they are allowing same-sex couples to marry but they still want to deny some of the rights of marriage to same-sex couples. In Texas, the state supreme court heard a case earlier this year in which conservative groups sued the city of Houston for providing spousal benefits to same-sex spouses of municipal employees. An attorney for those suing the city argued, “The meaning and scope of Obergefell remain open to debate”; that is, Texas might grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but they don’t have to give the same rights to same-sex couples.