ACLU Sues Over CA’s Discriminatory Name Change Practices

When my wife and I got married, we discussed our various naming options. (See my brief writeup on this decision). “Traditionally,” the wife takes the husband’s last name. However, my last name, Schlachter, was long, hard to pronounce and harder to spell. Lisa’s last name was Sanger, a much shorter and more elegant name. As a result, we discussed the possibility that I would take her last name.

When we took out our marriage license, we inquired about this option with the clerk. If Lisa had wanted to take “Schlachter,” it would be a simple and cheap check-the-box decision on the marriage license. But the clerk informed us that if I wanted to change my name to hers, we would have to get a court order–there was not a mirror-image check-the-box process.

I was shocked by the embedded discrimination in the system that made it easy for a woman to take a man’s name, but hard for a man to take a woman’s name. This struck me as obviously illegal, but I wasn’t in the mood for a fight. Instead, after Lisa and I discussed the value of my taking her name, we decided that if we had to go to court anyway, we would synthesize our own unique name–Goldman, our surnames today. But, this wasn’t a cheap decision (it cost us over $400).

Deep down, I’ve always had some regret that I did not proactively challenge California’s discriminatory practice. Fortunately, another thwarted couple showed more initiative. After running into the same brick wall, Diana Bijon and Mike Buday went to the ACLU of Southern California and sought their intervention. The ACLU filed a lawsuit on their behalf last December. As the ACLU Press Release says:

“California has the perfect marriage application for the 17th century, and this relic belongs in the trash with laws that forced women to change their names when they married,” said ACLU/SC legal director Mark Rosenbaum.

More on the story from the LA Times (and their editorial), NY Times, Sacramento Bee (editorial), Bitch PhD, Deliciously_Naughty, and Second Nature.

I am 100% convinced that the courts will strike down California’s current discriminatory practice if California doesn’t unilaterally fix it beforehand. (As Kip says, “As a question of constitutional law, this isn’t even close”). Kudos to Bijon, Buday and the ACLU for fighting the good fight to correct this vestige of historical discrimination.

UPDATE: McClatchy runs an update. The “Department of Health Services denies that the current process for changing one’s name after marriage discriminates against men” based on a hypertechnical interpretation of the meaning of the name change box on the marriage license. From first-hand experience, I can confirm that I needed a court order to change my name with various financial institutions. At the same time, Assemblywoman Fiona Ma is introducing AB102 to allow reciprocal treatment. The article quotes a NOW representative as saying she “doubted that AB102 would prompt massive numbers of men to take their wife’s last name,” which I’m sure is true, but for those who make this choice, they shouldn’t have to run a gauntlet.