WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday overturned a state court ruling that allowed Arkansas to refuse to list both same-sex spouses on birth certificates, a decision that helps clarify the scope of protections provided by the high court's landmark 2015 decision legalizing gay marriage.
The justices ruled in favor of lesbian couples by throwing out a December ruling by the Arkansas Supreme Court decision that upheld state officials' refusal to name the wives of the birth mothers as parents on birth certificates.
The Arkansas court said state officials do not have to list both same-sex spouses as named parents on birth certificates, even though state law allows a birth mother's opposite-sex husband to be listed when the baby is not biologically related to him. Both couples received the birth certificates they wanted when they won in trial court.
Conservative Justices Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented, saying the lower court decision should not have been reversed.
Two gay married couples who live in Arkansas, Marisa and Terrah Pavan and Leigh and Jana Jacobs, were turned down by the Arkansas Department of Health to include both parents' names on their babies' birth certificates. In each case, only the birth parent was listed on the certificate.
Both couples sued in state court, and a trial judge ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide required that the same-sex spouses be named on the birth certificates.
The Obergefell decision noted that the denial of the "constellation of benefits that the states have linked to marriage," including birth certificates, harms same-sex couples.
The couples received their amended birth certificate documents, but the state appealed. Last December, the top Arkansas court overturned the trial judge's ruling, saying that the Obergefell ruling was limited to marriage itself and did not apply to birth certificates.
The state court said the birth certificate law did not violate the guarantee of equal protection under the U.S. Constitution because it was intended to record biological relationships, not marital ones.
"It does not violate equal protection to acknowledge basic biological truths," the state court said.
The couples urged the Supreme Court to review the case, saying the Arkansas law requires opposite-sex husbands to be listed on birth certificates even if the baby is conceived through artificial insemination with donated sperm. The Obergefell decision not only requires states to allow same-sex couples to marry, they added, but to receive the same marriage-related benefits.
The state argued that its law records accurate information about biological parentage, which could be important to a child for future health-related reasons. The state has conceded in court that the state's separate law concerning birth certificates for children born using artificial insemination is likely unconstitutional because it allows the male spouse in a heterosexual relationship to be listed on a birth certificate even when he has no biological relationship with the child.
Several civil rights groups filed legal papers supporting the couples. Lambda Legal, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, said that despite the Obergefell decision several states have continued for force couples to sue to add same-sex spouses to birth certificates.
Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham