Two Sioux Falls women who were legally married in Iowa are petitioning to change their names in Minnehaha County court after the Department of Public Safety refused to issue them driver’s licenses in their married names.
A woman from North Sioux City who took her wife’s name in an Iowa marriage in October has filed a similar petition in Union County. Both petitions have the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota.
In 2006, South Dakota voters passed a constitutional amendment that banned and refused to recognize same-sex marriages and civil unions. The South Dakota Legislature had passed a bill with similar language in 2000. Whether the name-change petitions will be seen as an attempt to validate same-sex marriage probably will determine whether they are approved and whether the law itself is challenged.
The ACLU sees the license denials as evidence that such laws turn homosexuals into second-class citizens and threaten to drive people from the state. If the courts refuse to accept the name-change petition on the grounds that doing so would endorse a same-sex union, lawsuits might follow.
“This is an emerging issue for states that have passed these constitutional amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage,” said Robert Doody, executive director of the South Dakota ACLU. “They’re being used to deny people really basic rights.”
Others see the issuance of driver’s licenses for same-sex couples who’ve changed their names as legitimizing a union that legislators and voters in South Dakota have rejected as invalid.
Chris Hupke, the executive director of the South Dakota Family Policy Council, said the denials are proof that the amendment his group pushed for in 2006 is being taken seriously by state government.
“Everyone did their job,” Hupke said. “The system worked.”
Snag is documenting legal name change
The laws have affected only driver licensing since last year, when the department began requiring drivers to provide legal documentation of a name change when applying for a license. The rules also require a person to have four pieces of ID to obtain or renew a license.
The change caused headaches for state officials that still haven’t entirely gone away. The Department of Public Safety led into the change with a blitz of advertising about the new rules, but spokesman Terry Woster said this week that about one in five people who apply for a license still are unprepared.
Same-sex marriage certificates invalid
A marriage certificate works as proof of a name change for heterosexual couples, but it does not for same-sex couples. A message in bold print on the paper applications points out that the state will not accept any documents related to same-sex marriage.
The department sought legal advice on the issue as officials prepared for the new rules, according to Cindy Gerber, the state’s director of driver’s licensing. The Attorney General’s Office made it clear that proof of a same-sex union cannot be accepted as a legal document in South Dakota. A state-issued name change would work, however.
“If we get a court-ordered name change, we’d have to accept that,” Gerber said.
The question is whether the court will order such a change, Doody said.
Jessica Dybing and Andrea Jorgensen of Sioux Falls were married in August and changed their surnames to Dybing-Jorgensen. Amy Muston married Ashley Stabe in October and took Stabe’s name.
The ACLU has taken up the issue for women in Georgia and Virginia as well, states that have constitutional amendments barring same-sex unions.
“These are not the only couples this has happened to,” Doody said.
‘This is no good,’ clerk told women
Amy Stabe of North Sioux City said she didn’t read the fine print before handing her Iowa marriage certificate to a department employee in Vermillion.
“She basically threw the certificate back in my face like it was a piece of garbage and said ‘this is no good,’ ” Stabe said. “At first I thought she thought it was fraudulent.”
Stabe pressed her case, showing the employee a federally issued Social Security card with her new name on it.
“She said, ‘that’s no good, either,’ ” Stabe said.
The employees then explained that South Dakota doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages and won’t accept the certificates as proof of a new name.
“I was shocked,” she said. “I wasn’t applying for benefits, I was just trying to get my name changed.”
Now, Stabe’s Social Security card and credit cards list her name as “Amy Stabe,” but her license still reads “Amy Muston.” Her mail is addressed to Amy Stabe, too.
She said she’s had difficulty applying for a car loan and has to bring extra identification when using her credit card. She’s also concerned about her ability to board a commercial flight with a license that doesn’t match her Social Security card.
“I have to explain myself to everybody,” she said.
Key issue to decide, professor says
The case turns on whether the judges who evaluate the petitions see them as attempts to validate the marriages, according to Roger Baron, a professor at the University of South Dakota Law School who teaches family law.
A name change doesn’t always reflect a person’s legal status, he said. A divorced woman whose son carries his biological father’s name may remarry and ask the judge to give her son the new husband’s name, he said, but doing so doesn’t alter the legal rights or responsibilities of the biological father.
South Dakota law requires only that a petitioner show “proper and reasonable cause” for the name change. Single mothers often ask a judge to change their child’s name to their own. Avoiding confusion at school functions or medical clinics is a common justification on such petitions.
“There is room for the court to find a reasonable and just cause without recognizing a same-sex marriage,” Baron said.
Still, the fact that the name change is tied to a same-sex marriage in a state that clearly bars the practice could complicate matters, he said.
“This is a powder keg,” Baron said.
At least one person has told Amy Stabe to leave South Dakota, but she likes it here. People are friendly, she said, there is no income tax to pay, and her commute to work is about five minutes.
“Before I pursued this name change thing, I would tell people that South Dakota’s a great place to live,” she said. “I was really disappointed.”
The state is still a welcoming place, Hupke of the Family Policy Council said. The ban on same-sex marriage is a reflection of voters’ belief in traditional marriage and not a rejection of homosexuals.
“Marriage is that only institution that seeks to give a mother and father to every child,” Hupke said.