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Lawsuit challenges Alabama county policies on marriage licenses

By Joe Sutton, CNN
updated 10:05 PM EDT, Fri October 21, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The lawsuit seeks to overturn local policies requiring proof of legal status for licenses
  • The policies go against a 2004 state opinion on licenses for non-U.S. citizens, suit says
  • The suit's plantiffs are a couple who have been together for 9 years

(CNN) -- A lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center is challenging policies in several Alabama counties that, the center says, bar undocumented immigrants from getting marriage licenses.

The lawsuit is based on the experiences of a man and woman whose marriage license applications were rejected in several counties because the groom-to-be could not prove he is in the United States legally, according to the Montgomery, Alabama-based center.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Montgomery, seeks to overturn identification policies that are enforced in 54 of Alabama's 67 counties on a local-option basis, according to the center. The policies are strictly local rules and are not based on any state or federal requirements, the center says.

Those policies require applicants for a marriage license to produce proof of legal status, such as a green card or a passport with a valid visa, according to the lawsuit. A Social Security card is also required, the suit says.

Because undocumented immigrants lack such documentation, the policies stand as effective barriers to those immigrants' efforts to marry and establish homes and families, the center says.

The suit lists as plaintiffs a woman who is a U.S. citizen and a man from Mexico who does not have documentation allowing him to be in the country. They have been together as a couple for more than nine years, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The couple tried to get a marriage license in several counties but failed each time because the man could not produce the required identification.

The couple also fear the man possibly could be arrested if his status becomes known based on the state's recent anti-illegal immigration law, according to SPLC Legal Director Mary Bauer. Alabama recently passed HB 56, which, among its provisions, gives state and local officials the authority to detain suspected undocumented immigrants without bond.

Bauer said Thursday that the couple remain together, living in Alabama, and also remain unmarried.

"This arbitrary policy attacks one of the most fundamental rights in this country -- the right to marry," Bauer said. "There is no reason why anyone should have to produce their 'papers' before they say, 'I do.'"

The lawsuit cites a 2004 opinion from the Alabama attorney general's office that states "a marriage license can be issued to an applicant who is not a United States citizen."

The lawsuit names a single judge as defendant in the case because, according to the law center, he was one of a series of judges that would not issue a marriage license; however the couple initially went to their home county where they also were denied. According to Bauer, Judge Reese McKinney would serve as the representative for all 54 counties, known as a defendant class-action suit, pending a judge's approval.

McKinney did not return calls from CNN requesting comment.

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