LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Sara Hudson and James Scott Keeling had a spring wedding all set: a wedding dress was picked out, a cake selected and two disposable cameras were bought to commemorate the April 26, 2012, celebration. Then, a door slammed shut on their plans.
Bullitt County Clerk Kevin Mooney cancelled the couple's marriage license two days before the event, saying Keeling, an inmate at the Kentucky State Reformatory, had to appear in person to apply for the license.
That decision, and a similar one involving another inmate and his fiancée that same day, spawned two lawsuits challenging restrictions on issuing marriage licenses to the incarcerated. Both lawsuits, brought with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, ask a judge to lift the requirement of appearing in person to apply for the license. The litigation seeks an injunction that would allow the clerks to issue marriage licenses to the couples.
"This case challenges an unduly restrictive government regulation that, if left unchecked, will effectively deny Ms. Hudson her fundamental right to marry," ACLU attorney William E. Sharp said.
Central to the issue is the requirement that both parties appear in-person at the clerk's office to apply for the license. Keeling and other inmates do not have that option because the Kentucky Department of Corrections will not release them temporarily for security reasons.
The Department of Corrections doesn't track how many inmates in its custody get married, so there is no way to know how many inmates the cases may impact. But, inmates can get married with the warden's permission and a valid license.
"If they get the license, we will marry them," spokeswoman Lisa Lamb said.
Nearly every state has written regulations about marrying an inmate. Unlike asking a father for the bride's hand in marriage, inmates need to get the permission of the warden. Oklahoma's regulations expressly state that marrying an inmate isn't encouraged, but don't block a ceremony from taking place. The inmate's spouse must cover all the expenses and guests are generally restricted to immediate family. California doesn't allow rings to be exchanged, while New Mexico bars flowers and cake.
Kentucky's marriage law doesn't specifically say a prospective bride and groom must both apply for a license in person. But in a memo to county clerks in July 2008, the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives said that is what the law means. In the memo, Jerry Carlton, director of local government records, cited language in the statute saying the clerk must verify the identity of the would-be bride and groom and "see to it that every blank space required to be filled by the applicants is so filled before delivering it to the licensee."
Mooney, the Bullitt County clerk, cited that reason in a letter to Hudson and Keeling and the other couple he denied, Jeremy Edward Devers and Patricia Locke. Mooney did not return a message seeking comment from The Associated Press.
A standoff ensued with the state's interpretation of the law in 2008. For security reasons, the Corrections Department wouldn't bring prisoners to clerks' offices to apply for marriage licenses, and clerks wouldn't send employees inside prisons to verify their applications.
The Kentucky Attorney General's Office recommended procedures be adopted to assist inmates after a Lexington lawyer threatened to sue three years ago. The state came up with a form that incarcerated would-be spouses could sign and get notarized in prison.
But the Kentucky County Clerk's Association later voted not to accept them.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that inmates have a right to marry, subject to restrictions for security reasons. The high court struck down a prison rule from Missouri that allowed inmates to marry only with the warden's permission and only for "compelling" reasons.
Then-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court that inmate marriages, like those outside prison, offer "substantial important benefits," are "expressions of emotional support and public commitment" and may be an "exercise of religious faith."
Keeling, 27, is scheduled for release from the Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange, Ky., in June 2016 on sex abuse charges out of Grayson County. Devers, 40, is serving a life sentence for murder and robbery in Jefferson County at Northpoint Training Center in Burgin, Ky.
Locke tried unsuccessfully to get a license in Jefferson and Oldham counties, but the clerks turned her down each time.
For now, at least, both couples will have to wait before tying the knot.
"Even though Ms. Hudson's fiancé is a Kentucky inmate, she has the right to marry him free from undue governmental interference," Sharp said.
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